With bagpipes wailing, Stewart remembered

Golf

June 15, 2005|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

PINEHURST, N.C. - The larger-than-life bronze statue stands behind the 18th green, not far from where the man who among those immortalized here made the biggest putt of his career and one of the most memorable in the history of the U.S. Open.

Payne Stewart has been dead nearly six years now, the memory still too raw for many of that October day when news came that the private plane he was flying on had lost pressure in the cabin, killing all on board, and later crashed.

Under a broiling afternoon sun, Stewart's personality was briefly brought back to life yesterday in a ceremony at the fabled No. 2 course, where play begins tomorrow in the 105th U.S. Open.

With a single bagpiper playing three slow Scottish airs as he walked up the first fairway, with words that evoked tears and laughter, Stewart's thrilling victory was relived by friends and former competitors, one in particular.

What Phil Mickelson remembers most from that day was what happened immediately after Stewart made a 15-foot par putt to secure a one-stroke win and celebrated by punching the air and thrusting his leg back, then jumping into the arms of his caddie, Mike Hicks.

Stewart grabbed Mickelson's cheeks and told him that another crushing defeat would be diminished as soon as Amy Mickelson delivered the couple's first child. Amanda Mickelson was born the next day.

"He handled himself with such class," Mickelson said. "At the end of the day, he stopped and paused for a second and put himself in somebody else's shoes. He put himself in my position and shared the moment with me."

It was a position that Stewart had been in the year before, when he lost a shootout with Lee Janzen in the U.S. Open at the Olympic Club outside San Francisco. Janzen had also beaten Stewart to win the Open at Baltusrol in 1993.

The two would become close friends after Stewart became a born-again Christian shortly after the 1998 U.S. Open.

"I've heard that even though the '98 U.S. Open was devastating to him at first, it helped him really search inside what was important to him," Janzen said. "Was winning a major championship [something that] would make him happy? He found out differently."

This is a particularly emotional week for Janzen, since he has used Stewart's old caddie for the past two years.

"Rarely does a day goes by when I don't think about Payne," said Janzen, who has become close friends with Stewart's family and a mentor to Aaron Stewart, now 15.

"I live in the same town [Orlando, Fla.]. I see his family quite a bit. It's not going to be different. The grief was when we lost him."

Hicks declined a request for an interview last week at Congressional Country Club before the Booz Allen Classic.

"I've talked enough," he said. "Sorry, I can't do it anymore."

Nick Price recalled last week in Bethesda how he came to play a practice round at Pinehurst No. 2 last month with some USGA officials, looking for input on the course, but left with recollections of Stewart resounding in his head.

"Being a contemporary of mine, his passing left a big hole in my generation and our friendship because Payne and I had a very close, mirror-image-type careers," said Price, who, like Stewart, has won three majors. "The tour certainly lost one of its great characters, and my generation certainly lost one of its true friends."

While respected for his talent and admired for one of the purest swings in the game, Stewart was not universally liked by his peers until the last few months of his life.

Known for being caustic and a bit condescending, once admonishing a tournament volunteer and often exhibiting a politically incorrect sense of humor - even close friend Paul Azinger once called Stewart a "professional heckler" - Stewart changed his persona dramatically when he became a born-again Christian.

Asked about Stewart last week, another of his contemporaries summed up the feelings of many on the tour.

"He became a nice guy when he found religion," said Tom Kite.

The celebration by Stewart on the 18th green here in 1999 was captured in the statue, and a silhouette of that famed pose depicted in the statue will be replicated on the flag attached to the pin on the 18th green come Sunday.

Dr. Richard Coop, a sports psychologist at the University of North Carolina who worked with Stewart for many years and remains close to his family, said that coming back to Pinehurst is still more bitter than sweet. He can understand why Tracy Stewart and her two children aren't here this week.

"It's tough going to any tournament you haven't been since you were there with him," said Coop, who represented the family at the ceremony.

"We'd come down when Payne came to Chapel Hill if he had time. He loved this place. It's a little more poignant just because of how much affection he had for the people here and they for him."

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