Ghost of Payne Stewart lingers at Pinehurst

Posted: June 12, 2014

PINEHURST, N.C. - This Open is haunted.

Perhaps 9 years ago, the last time Pinehurst No. 2 hosted the U.S. Open, it was too soon for any manifestation to have set in. There was plenty written and spoken in 2005 about Payne Stewart's death in a plane crash in 1999, but the atmosphere was not so . . . sad.

Perhaps Stewart's soul was still adrift in some limbo, measuring its options before making its play.

Certainly, the sense of loss and mortality did not descend on this Southern resort the way it has this week.

This time, the Ghost of Payne is everywhere.

It is in the statue behind the 18th green, posed in his iconic celebratory stance: fist pumped, left leg planted, right leg bent, heel toward the sky. He wears his knickers and his Paddy cap and the rain vest he fashioned while warming up for that final round by cutting the sleeves off a jacket.

A fence surrounds the statue, which sits just to the left of the green, in front of the clubhouse entrance. Fans line up to take pictures in front of it. Most of them strike Stewart's pose.

His presence is palpable.

"It's everywhere," said Chelsea, Stewart's daughter, now 28. "Even I'm looking forward to going over to the statue and doing the pose."

She was in Pinehurst with her mother, Tracey, to accept the Bob Jones Award, on behalf of Payne, from the USGA, which runs the U.S. Open. Stewart's 25-year-old son, Aaron, did not attend.

This was the first time since its inception in 1955 that the award was presented at a tournament. Usually, it is presented at the organization's annual winter meeting to a golfer who exemplifies sportsmanship. Previous recipients include Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Annika Sorenstam and President George H.W. Bush.

Nick Price was the honoree in 2005, when the Open last returned to Pinehurst. Stewart's statue was already in place, but his death, less than 6 years before, was too fresh.

Now, 15 years removed from his death, with his friends and colleagues and chroniclers inevitably closer to their own ends, the atmosphere is more maudlin.

It was here that, after the 15-foot putt fell, Stewart, then a three-time major champion, etched his image as a mentor and a gracious champion. He grabbed Phil Mickelson's fresh young face in consolation and testified to Phil the place that family life held for him, only a day before Phil became a first-time father.

Friends say that fatherhood had already mellowed Stewart, and that buddy Paul Azinger's battle with cancer years before polished him further. But in that moment on the 18th green, Stewart's caustic, petulant, runner-up image changed forever.

Just in time.

Despite Stewart's 1989 PGA Championship and his 1991 U.S. Open win, his legacy was unsure, said golfer Peter Jacobsen: "Even players weren't sure that he had a big heart."

He showed everyone his heart with the 15-footer here, during and after. Little wonder his soul, if it is restless, has chosen this place to linger. It is when his legend began.

An entire generation of golfers has been fed the Legend of Payne Stewart. It will never be more pervasive than it is this week.

It will dwarf Justin Rose's title defense; Dustin Johnson's latest chance at fulfilling his promise; Jordan Spieth's continued incredible run at stardom; Adam Scott's first major championship since unseating Tiger Woods atop the world golf rankings.

That's right: This week, a ghost trumps Tiger.

Even Mickelson, the Buffalo Bills of the U.S. Open, will see his six second-places obscured by the memory of the best-dressed golfer since Walter Hagen.

The legacy of Stewart has been celebrated with thoroughness and imagination.

After Azinger spoke at Stewart's funeral, he transformed his suit into knickers. At the U.S. Open in 2000 at Pebble Beach, 21 of Stewart's peers showed up at dawn on Wednesday and hit balls into the Pacific Ocean in his honor. That year, the PGA established the Payne Stewart Award, given to a pro with exemplary commitment to tradition, charity and style.

The Golf Channel on Monday night enhanced the legend with an hourlong show that examined Stewart's 11-win career, his personality and, in great detail, his family life. Home movies cast Stewart as an engaged, energetic and emotional father. Over the course of the show, Tracey unpacked a box of memorabilia, cried a little, was too shaken to finish the interview, and repacked the box.

That was not the most disturbing part.

The most disturbing part was the video of news anchors reporting on the progress of a mystery flight that would not respond to attempts to contact it. Stewart's private plane, headed from Orlando to Dallas, depressurized at nearly 50,000 feet. The six occupants, including the two pilots, lost consciousness. Fighter jets shadowed the plane for most of its nearly 4-hour journey to a flat field in South Dakota. There, it ran out of fuel and spiraled into a crash that created a crater 42 feet long, 21 feet wide and 8 feet deep; a rough-hewn gravesite.

In the moment, it felt like watching an execution. On Monday night, it was like watching an execution all over again.

In the 15 years since, Mickelson has become golf's grand ambassador, well-dressed in pinstripes and 'gator patterns, perfectly coiffed, poignant and piercing; even a little flawed, as every hero must be.

This week figured to be more of an occasion of hope, a perfect setting for Mickelson's crowning achievement; completing the career slam by winning his most coveted title on Father's Day.

"It would be an incredible 360," Chelsea said.

And it might just put a soul to rest.


Email: hayesm@phillynews.com

On Twitter: @inkstainedretch

Blog: ph.ly/DNL

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