It is very difficult for me to comprehend that this October 25 will be the 20th anniversary of one of the darkest days in professional golf. On that date, Payne Stewart passed away in an unusual but tragic aircraft accident while on his way to Houston to play in the Tour Championship.
Just a few months earlier, on June 20, 1999, Payne Stewart had won the U.S. Open Championship at the famed Pinehurst #2 by making a 15-foot par putt on the 72nd hole to edge Phil Mickelson by a single shot. It was dubbed the Duel at Pinehurst, but as history shows, Payne came out on top for his second U.S. Open title. Payne tried his best to console a disappointed Mickelson by reminding him that he was going to be a father, and the next day Mickelson’s wife, Amy, gave birth to their first child, Amanda.
I remember meeting Payne for the first time in June of 1986 as he was at Shinnecock preparing for the U.S. Open. From our first handshake, I just knew there was something special about him. I remember covering a PGA Tour stop in New Orleans with the Masters to come the following week. There was a table set up with a signup sheet for a charter scheduled to leave that Sunday for Augusta. Payne just happened to be standing next to the table as I walked by and he asked if I had signed up yet. I hadn’t, but he seemed rather insistent. So I did. On the relatively short flight from New Orleans to Augusta, I found out just why I was invited. Shortly after take-off, Payne asked if I wanted in on the blackjack game he was dealing.
In 1998, the U.S. Open Championship was contested at the Olympic Club in San Francisco. Payne had played some fantastic golf that week and had the lead over the first three rounds. At one point on Sunday in the final round, he had a seven-shot lead but as the round went on Payne struggled and ended up with a heartbreaking round of four over par for a 74 and a second-place finish. Meanwhile, Lee Janzen had played brilliantly firing a nifty little two under par 68 and became the 1998 U.S. Open Champion.
My role for the USGA was to interview the players, including Payne. I was fully aware that Payne would be heartbroken over his final round performance after being in such a great position to win, so I was very happy to learn that Payne’s mother would accompany him during the interview. As I was wrapping things up, Payne — very much a self-assured player — said, “Before you go, Bob, I want you to know that I will win the U.S. Open next year at Pinehurst.” Well, as you can imagine, that statement was as bold as the flamboyant golf attire he wore. Flash forward to my 1999 interview with the newly minted U.S. Open Champion, Payne Stewart. As I was wrapping up my late afternoon winners interview at Pinehurst, I played back the 1998 runner-up interview for him, which included his bold prediction that he would win in 1999. Payne chose not to respond but flashed a smile that I can still recall to this day, 20 years later.
I never had the opportunity to speak with Payne again, but will forever remember the smile he gave me that sunny afternoon in Pinehurst while holding that shiny U.S. Open trophy. October 25 will mark 20 years since his passing, but there’s still plenty of pain for a friend I lost way too early.