U.S. Open’s journey back to Pinehurst conjures memories of Missouri native Payne Stewart

06/12/2014 9:46 PM

06/13/2014 10:58 AM

The restaurant at the Payne Stewart Golf Club, just off Pinehurst Drive, is called “The Many Faces of Payne Bar & Grill.”

Inside is a gallery of his life, pictures with family and friends, celebrities and competitors.

But the very name speaks to the tale of a man whose style was at once gaudy and dignified, who could be as chivalrous as he was brash and who made his game appear effortless despite his raw intensity.

It also speaks to a career that was so marked by second-place finishes that he was once known as “Avis” (for the odd old Avis ad proclaiming itself No. 2 but, by golly, trying harder) yet is best remembered for his thrilling U.S. Open triumph at Pinehurst.

For many reasons, that’s the face that endures and endears in golf lore.

And that was particularly so 15 years ago Thursday as Stewart began his approach to his finest moment, just months before his death at 42 in a ghastly, ghostly plane crash.

“It was how he won there,” club general manager Dan Davis said, “and just the tragedy.”

All of that lends a certain mythical quality to the legacy of Stewart, a native of Springfield, who was being commemorated in multiple ways as the U.S. Open got underway this week at Pinehurst.

Most vividly, Stewart’s daughter, Chelsea, did her best imitation pose next to a statue of his iconic celebratory raised-leg fist-pump just off the 18th green of Pinehurst No. 2.

Her version varied only by the placement of her left hand on the bronzed right arm of the statue for support.

But she didn’t need that to still feel him as a pillar in her life.

Speaking Tuesday at Pinehurst to accept the Bobby Jones Award bestowed on Stewart for sportsmanship, character and respect for the game, she recounted a lesson from when she was 7 and struggling in a parent-child portion of a PGA Tour event at Walt Disney World.

“He told me that I had to hit the ball where it lies,” she said before a group of hundreds. “You can imagine my frustration as a kid. But the lesson was profound and one that I still live with today.

“The ball isn’t always in the fairway. Sometimes we end up in the rough, the deep rough. It is tempting to nudge the ball into a better position, maybe even kick the ball into a better lie.

“But as my dad taught me character is about resisting the temptation and hitting the ball where it lies.”

Stewart learned a lot of that at home in Springfield, where his father, Bill, was a two-time Missouri Amateur champion and furniture salesman who demanded respect for the game.

He also dressed like a peacock.

“He always said if you stand out when you go in to sell somebody something, they’ll remember who you are. If you come in dressed all in boring Navy blue, you’re just somebody else in the crowd,” Stewart said in Larry Guest’s biography, “The Payne Stewart Story.” “Sometimes he didn’t even match. But you definitely knew when Bill Stewart was around. You could feel the radiation.”

That style came to distinguish Stewart, who also was prone to a certain loudness of personality before he came to find peace in the last years of his life through parenthood and religion.

His sartorial radiation could be an irritation, Stewart discovered, as he unveiled a look described on one of the anecdotal plaques attesting to a memorable moment for Stewart at each hole here.

With Stewart clad in “lavender plus-fours (knickers), a Tam O’Shanter cap and matching argyle knee socks” at the 1982 Georgia Pacific Atlanta Classic, playing partner Lee Trevino did a double-take.

“I thought you were going to a golf tournament,” he said, “not a kindergarten fashion show.”

Still, those throwback flourishes became as much a part of Stewart’s identity as anything, and you could see that link here Thursday when two golfers passed by dressed a la Stewart.

That happens once a week or so, Davis said.

Less rare among those playing the approximately 20,000 rounds a year at the public course furnished with memorabilia from Stewart’s foundation are people with some sense of a tie to Stewart.

“They went to high school with him or they knew his dad or they fished with him or they saw him at a tournament,” said Davis, who grew up in Raymore idolizing Tom Watson. “It blows my mind. I guess I didn’t know how much impact he made on everybody.”

Among those who’ve been here was Jon Hoffman, on whose farm near Mina, S.D., the plane carrying Stewart, two pilots and three other passengers crashed on Oct. 25, 1999.

As best anyone knows, all on board the plane originally bound from Orlando, Fla., to Dallas died when it lost cabin pressure.

On autopilot, the eerie, aimless flight was tracked by Air Force and Air National Guard jet fighters before running out of fuel.

That came only a month after another peak of Stewart’s career, the 1999 Ryder Cup.

But it’s Pinehurst that resonates among all his achievements, which included the 1989 PGA Championship and 1991 U.S. Open, the clubs from which are on display here.

That’s why Davis considers Stewart’s trophy from Pinehurst the centerpiece of all the memorabilia at the golf course, among which also are the golf bags from all five Ryder Cup teams he was on.

Only a year before, Stewart had bungled a four-stroke lead entering the final day of the U.S. Open at the Olympic Club to come up short.

This time, though, he summoned a remarkable 15-foot putt to fend off Phil Mickelson in one of the greatest endings in golf history.

Stewart pumped his fists twice and hugged caddy Mike Hicks.

Then he did something more remarkable, something punctuated on the plaque at the 18th hole here and etched in history.

He tenderly clasped both hands on the face of Mickelson, whose wife was about to give birth to their first child, and he emphatically told him, “You’re going to love being a father.”

Of the many faces of Stewart, that’s the indelible one, the one of grace.

To reach Vahe Gregorian, call 816-234-4868 or send email to vgregorian@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter @vgregorian. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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