First peace, then tragedy

Stewart credited faith for turning his life, career around

October 26, 1999|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

For most of his 19-year career on the PGA Tour, Payne Stewart was known for his style rather than his substance. His behavior was admittedly more that of a churl than a champion. But last winter, he went through a major transformation.

He stopped drinking. He took his religious faith more seriously. He went from a player who fans -- and members of the media -- openly rooted against to one they pulled for, as happened when Stewart won his second U.S. Open in June.

It was his third major championship and the 11th victory of his career. Tragically, it was to be his last. Stewart died yesterday along with four others when the private jet he co-owned crashed near Mina, S.D.

Stewart was 42.

"It's difficult to express our sense of shock and sadness over the death of Payne Stewart," PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said in a statement. "This is a tremendous loss for the entire golf community and all of sports. He will always be remembered as a very special competitor and one who contributed enormously to the positive image of professional golf."

Criticized earlier in his career for being more concerned with making money than winning tournaments -- other players called him "Avis" for finishing second so many times -- Stewart's image as a player changed when he won the 1989 PGA Championship.

He backed it up two years later with his first U.S. Open title, beating Scott Simpson in an 18-hole playoff.

Yet it wasn't until a rainy Father's Day night earlier this year at the famed No. 2 course in Pinehurst, N.C. that Stewart reinvented himself as a player of historic proportions. His 15-foot birdie putt on the final hole of regulation to beat Phil Mickelson by a shot was the longest putt to win the Open.

He was still the guy in the retro-look knickers and tam-o'-shanter, a look that he once capitalized on with a lucrative endorsement contract from NFL Properties. He even looked stylish in the sleeveless rain jacket he wore, having cut off the arms that day to free up his swing.

But Stewart credited his victory to his strengthened religious belief.

"I'm proud of the fact that my faith in God is so much stronger and I'm so much more at peace with myself than I've ever been before in my life," he said that night, his face still wet from the rain, sweat and tears. "That's the reason I was able to gather myself and collect myself [before the putt]."

The victory came a year after Stewart had blown a four-shot lead on the last day of the 1998 Open, losing to Lee Janzen by a shot at the Olympic Club in San Francisco.

He became only the third player to win the Open the year after finishing second, following legends Bobby Jones and Jack Nicklaus.

Having broken a four-year winless drought this season at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, the victory at Pinehurst helped catapult Stewart to a personal-best $2,077,950 in earnings, third on this year's money list behind Tiger Woods and David Duval. Stewart's career earnings of $11,737,000 ranked him third all-time.

His image wasn't without its contradictions, and his career not without its controversies.

Despite being known as something of a spoiled brat -- even his mother was quoted as saying she didn't like the person her famous son had become -- Stewart once donated the check he received for winning a tournament in 1987 to a Florida hospital in honor of his father, Bill.

Bill Stewart was an accomplished amateur golfer who had once competed in the U.S. Open. Before his death, Bill Stewart had seen his son win once as a pro -- at the 1982 Quad Cities Open. "My most cherished victory," Payne Stewart said last year of his first PGA Tour win.

Stewart's maturation was obvious to those who had followed his career. During the U.S. team's recent Ryder Cup victory outside Boston, he criticized the American fans who had unmercifully heckled Colin Montgomerie. With his team's victory assured, Stewart conceded a putt -- and the match -- to Montgomerie on the 18th hole.

"This game is about sportsmanship," Stewart said.

During what turned into the final tournament of his life, his mouth got him in trouble. Sitting out a rain delay at the National Car Rental Golf Classic in Orlando, Fla., Stewart commented on remarks made by golf analyst Peter Alliss by doing an imitation of a Chinese person. Stewart later apologized.

Stewart would miss the cut, spending the weekend at home with his wife, Tracey, and their two children, 14-year-old Chelsea and 10-year-old Aaron. He was flying from his home in Orlando to Texas, where he was scheduled to play in this week's Tour Championship in Houston.

"It will be a tough week for all the players, for myself, for the wives, for everyone," said Jeff Maggert, a teammate of Stewart's on this year's Ryder Cup team. "It's a tragic situation."

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