At the 2000 United States Open at Pebble Beach, the defending champion of the national championship could not defend his title.
Payne Stewart had won the 1999 U.S. Open at Pinehurst in a dramatic fashion, draining a 15-foot putt on the final hole to edge Phil Mickelson by a stroke.
Stewart died in a plane crash a little more than four months later, on October 25.
The golf community decided to use the 2000 U.S. Open as a chance to pay tribute to Payne, as he was the defending champion of the tournament.
A "21-Ball Salute" ceremony was held on the 18th fairway on Wednesday that week, a day before play began. Twenty-one golf pros teed up balls along the edge of No. 18, and on command, they all splashed them in the Pacific at the same time. A second group did the same thing.
A small ceremony was held, and several of Payne’s friends spoke. One of those was perhaps his closest friend on tour, Paul Azinger.
"If golf was art, then Payne was the color," Azinger said, choking back tears.
"The challenge is not to forget Payne. And not just Payne the golfer, but Payne the person."
It would be 10 more years before the open returned to Pebble Beach: The 2010 Open last week, won by Graeme McDowell.
Although Stewart never won the Open at Pebble Beach, it is hard not to think back to that ceremony in 2000 and think of him here. Stewart, without ever winning at Pebble Beach, has become part of its history.
Payne won two U.S. Opens. The first was at Hazeltine, outside of Minneapolis, in 1991, the second at Pinehurst.
In 2005, Pinehurst hosted the U.S. Open, and that too was a time to remember the golfing legend who was taken much too early. Pinehurst will again host the Open in 2014, and no doubt our thoughts will again return to the gentleman who wore the knickers.
Hazeltine, the site of Payne’s first Open title, is now on the PGA Championship rotation, and every time it is played there, like last August, we can’t help but think of him again. The same with Kemper Lakes Golf Club in Illinois, where Payne won his one PGA Championship in 1989. The same with Brookline Country Club, the site of the famous 1999 Ryder Cup in which the U.S. stormed back and won, just a few weeks before Stewart’s death.
All of these golf courses, as time goes on, will lead us to think back to Payne.
For myself, my connection with Payne will be from the 1989 Bay Hill tournament outside Orlando. Although I was at the playoff in 1991 at Hazeltine when he won the Open with an 18-hole playoff win over Scott Simpson, it is Bay Hill that I think back of when I think of Stewart.
It was the first tournament I ever went to. I think Davis Love ended up winning on the last hole in dramatic fashion over somebody, I can’t remember who. Payne was not in the mix at the top of the leader board.
However, I remember walking near the clubhouse in the middle of the day Sunday and Stewart came running out, holding a chocolate bar of some sort. He had ducked into the clubhouse in the middle of his round to grab the chocolate. As I walked along I remember him walking toward me, in a hurry, and he looked at me and smiled and said, "Hi." This big cheerful "hi" to a strange young man he had never seen before, in the middle of his round which, as I recall, wasn’t going all that great.
That is what I remember about Payne Stewart. That big cheery, “Hi."
Last year, in an interview with Golf Week, around the time of the 10-year anniversary of his win at Pinehurst, Payne’s wife Tracy was asked how much she missed him.
“They say time heals all wounds,” she said. “I don’t believe that. Because it hasn’t healed my wound. I mean, the only thing that’s going to heal my heart is if Payne was here. He’s the only one who can fill that void. And I can’t have that, so I have to live with that.”
What makes it easier, for golf fans at least, is that we have all these opportunities to remember Payne. For golf fans, thankfully, it will only be a matter of time before another tournament is played on a course that makes us think back to the quiet man from Missouri.
For, as Payne’s close friend Paul Azinger said 10 years ago on the 18th fairway at Pebble Beach, “The challenge is not to forget Payne. And not just Payne the golfer, but Payne the person.”
Just like 1989 at Bay Hill. I don’t remember a single shot Stewart hit that day. But I do remember the smile he gave me.