This month marks the fourth anniversary of the death of William Payne Stewart. It seems like yesterday, but it was on October 25, 1999, that we all sat dumfounded, watching CNN track his Learjet’s final journey.
The man I remember was occasionally arrogant and often caustic, and he always had a high opinion of himself. Hi, I’m Payne Stewart, how do you like me so far?
For the record, I liked him just the way he was — before he found Jesus and afterward too — and I’ve been upset many times by the way he has been remembered. Too many people have painted him as a bad guy before he became religious. Television vignettes and magazine articles have told the story of how he refused to sign autographs, was mean-spirited in victory, did silly impersonations of ethnic minorities and so on — and then he saw the light, and lo, became a good person.
Well, he might have become a better person, but I’m here to tell you he was never mean. Don’t get me wrong, Payne Stewart could be a horse’s ass, but he had the sweetest of hearts. OK, he had a sensitive weakness-detector and was liable to pounce on and roast the nethermost regions of any companion, but he was hoping for the same stuff in return. He lived for the verbal sparring session, the cut and thrust of locker room trash talk, the snap of the rolled-up towel and the schoolboy giggles. He was the perfect practice partner, a gambler with a fart machine in his bag and the occasional real one for the top of your backswing, but the only evil thing about Payne was his sense of humor.
Lanny Wadkins tells a story about the time he, Ben Crenshaw and Payne were out on a game-fishing boat off Hawaii and Gentle Ben was hurling violently over the side. “There was nothing weak about his stomach, judging by how far he could throw it,” Wadkins recalls. Always the sensitive soul, Payne did his best to cheer up his pal by letting some of the tobacco juice from his chaw dribble down his chin, and then, with that dung-munching grin of his (how I miss it) he took a giant bite of his sandwich and offered it to heaving first mate Crenshaw. Wadkins had to grab Ben by the ankles to prevent him from hurling himself over the side.
In 1991, Payne was the U.S. Open champion, at the height of his golfing powers and the only man since Bobby Jones who could get away with those god-awful britches (I steadfastly refuse to call them knickers). Everyone else who wears them looks like he’s trying to guarantee he never gets laid again.
That year I was drawn against him in the singles at the Ryder Cup on Kiawah Island, South Carolina, and lucky for me I played the greatest round of my life. I was four up with four to play but lost 15 and 16, and my head was spinning as I made my way through a raucous, narrow tunnel of people from the 16th green to the 17th tee. A giant lady marshal speared me with a finger and boomed, “And where do you think you’re going, sir?” like I was a heavily disguised spectator. Already distraught, I was about to lose my pieces completely. From nowhere, an arm slid over my shoulder and around my neck, and Payne pressed his cheek to mine. I can still smell the sweet tobacco on his breath as he looked up at the marshal and said, “I’d love you to stop him, ma’am, but he’s playing against me!” Then, his arm still around me, he swept me up to the tee. And this was the Ryder Cup. Many an arsehole would have walked on by.
I won that match on the 17th green, and to this day I believe it was my finest moment in golf. Payne took off his white Kangol cap, grasped my cold, clammy hand with his warm, dry one, and said, grinning, “Boy, you were good today!”
Nobody gives anything away in the Ryder Cup — even a half-point is unbearable to part with — but eight years later Payne would pick up Monty’s ball on the 18th green at Brookline and give it to him. A few weeks later he was gone, leaving a hole in the Tour that will never be filled.