Payne Stewart's Unique Legacy Still a Huge Part of US Open and Pinehurst No. 2

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Payne Stewart's Unique Legacy Still a Huge Part of US Open and Pinehurst No. 2
David Cannon/Getty Images

There was so much more to Payne Stewart than his 1999 U.S. Open victory at the legendary Pinehurst No. 2 golf course, which is tucked into a quiet little golf community in North Carolina that is springing to life this week as the Open makes its return.

But still, few conversations about Stewart and his considerable legacy in the game of golf can be had without going into great detail about it.

It has been 15 years since Stewart sank the clutch 15-foot putt on the final hole to beat a young Phil Mickelson by a single stroke at Pinehurst No. 2. As the ball dropped into the hole to seal the win, Stewart immediately struck the winning pose that has been immortalized by a statue that golfers today cannot miss as they walk off the 18th green.

It is as if Stewart himself, who died four months later in a bizarre plane crash in South Dakota, continues to lord over the green where he made history and solidified his place as one of the most adored golfers to ever play the game.

There are many professional athletes who eventually loom larger in death than they ever actually did in life. Stewart is not one of them.

Bill Waugh/Associated Press
Stewart consoled Scott Simpson (right) after beating him in a playoff to win the 1991 U.S. Open.

He was not the greatest golfer of his era. He wasn't even always universally liked, earning a reputation earlier in his career for being "prickly" with golf writers who questionedrightly, it seemed, at the timehis ability to close out tournaments, according to Larry Bohannan of The Desert Sun.

But in the end, he was plenty good enough at the game and had a winning personality that made him a superstar. He also seemed to mellow over the years as he piled up 11 PGA Tour wins, dominated the early editions of the old Skins Game and helped anchor some of America's more memorable Ryder Cup teams.

He also seemed to transform from a young man with a reputation for being a party animal to a devoted husband and father, without quite leaving the party altogether.

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

And, oh yes, he carried himself on the golf course in a way that made him impossible to forget, win or lose. With his flamboyant outfits that included knee-length, bright, patterned knickers and a flat cap from a bygone golfing era commonly referred to as a "Tam o' Shanter," at least in Europe, everyone knew not only when Stewart was on the course, but where he was on it.

According to Back9Network.com, friend and fellow competitor Paul Azinger once said of Stewart: "If golf is an art, Payne Stewart was the color."

The 1999 win at Pinehurst was Stewart's third in a major, but by far his most memorable. He also won the 1989 PGA Championship and the 1991 U.S. Open, defeating Scott Simpson in a playoff.

But the way he won the '99 Open was destined to become legendary even if he had lived another 40 years.

His wife, Tracey, gave him the tip before the final round to keep his head down on his putts. His caddy at the time, Mike Hicks, recently said in an interview with Jason Sobel of the Golf Channel that Stewart was so focused that day that they barely spoke.

"There was no small talk between Payne and I," Hicks told Sobel. "He didn't say five words to me, other than, 'What do we got? What's it playing? How's the wind?' ... What really astounded me was the focus that he had, the look of determination on his face."

Yet when it ended, immediately after he struck the famous pose that would be immortalized in the statue just off the 18th green where he had sunk one of golf's greatest clutch putts, Stewart didn't even think of himself.

He thought of Mickelson. Having experienced coming close only to fall short many times earlier in his career, Stewart knew the hurt young Phil was feeling.

He also knew that Mickelson's wife, Amy, was expecting their first child at any moment. Mickelson had even talked of possibly missing the final round to be on hand for the blessed event.

So it was that Stewart grabbed Mickelson and cradled his foe's head in his hands and shouted, according to Back9Network, "You're going to be a father!"

It was his way of telling Mickelson that everything would be OK, that Mickelson would have his day in the golf spotlightand that nothing could beat fatherhood anyway, so why worry about it? 

Stewart's 1999 U.S. Open win came on Father's Day that year, as a matter of fact. Three months later, he helped the American side rally for a dramatic comeback win in the Ryder Cup, further solidifying a legacy that, at age 42, seemed to have so many more chapters yet to be added to it.

Harry How/Getty Images

But one month after that, he was gone. The plane he was flying in lost cabin pressure in mid-flight, killing everyone on board even before it finally was done circling on autopilot, and then it ran out of fuel and crashed in a South Dakota field.

As the U.S. Open gets underway this week at Pinehurst No. 2, Stewart's name will be brought up oftenas it should.

Fans will flock to the nearby Pine Crest Inn, where Stewart was known to hold court and his famous autograph still looms above the inside door of the cramped men's restroom just off the small main lobby.

Photos will be snapped with Stewart's statue just off the 18th green of No. 2. Competitors past and present will speak fondly of him and tell stories that leave their recipients shaking their heads and laughing.

Payne Stewart would have been 57 this year. Somewhere, you know he is enjoying all the glorious and well-deserved attention.

 

Joe Menzer once hacked his way around Pinehurst No. 2, but he saved his best work for the dinner and drinks that followed at the legendary Pine Crest Inn. He writes about golf and other sports for Bleacher Report and can be followed on Twitter @OneMenz. 

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