It’s not difficult to recognize Payne Stewart on the golf course, basically because of his clothes. Stewart wears knickers. Not because he has to, but because he wants to.
He even has his own clothing line featuring the short pants, the knee-high socks and the cap, which is a unique look these days. It tends to make Stewart look like Gene Sarazen’s grandson or a country club character with a mashie in “The Great Gatsby.”
Actually, Stewart is playing a different role, and when he arrives at Riviera Country Club for this week’s Nissan Open, he will be out to prove something.
Not quite two months after doctors removed a bone chip from his right elbow, Stewart is on the comeback trail. It began last week at Tucson, where he finished the Chrysler Classic Sunday with a four-under-par 284, and continues this week at Riviera.
The 1989 PGA and 1991 U.S. Open champion said he is arriving with some encouraging news.
“It doesn’t hurt when I swing,” Stewart said. “The bad shots will not be because I have a bad elbow, because I don’t have a bad elbow anymore.”
He did last year, especially in late October at the Walt Disney World Oldsmobile Golf Classic, where he finished second to Tiger Woods even though his elbow was throbbing at the end of every round.
Stewart thought he had tendinitis and did rehabilitation work for a month, then played the Wendy’s Three Tour Challenge. On the second tee, Stewart heard his elbow pop when he hit the ball.
He took another month off and had a shot of cortisone, but his elbow still wasn’t any better. When Stewart sought a second opinion, a specialist in New York found the bone chip.
One 2 1/2-hour operation, seven weeks of rehabilitation and one tournament later, Stewart is back on the golf course and not the least bit worried about what might happen there.
“I’m definitely looking at the big picture,” he said. “If I come out and produce like I know I can produce, I feel like my game is in shape.
“My attitude about my golf game is fresh. I’m exhilarated. I’m enjoying being out here. I’m having fun. If I can keep this approach all year long, it’s going to be a phenomenal year for Payne Stewart.”
And is that a big “if” or what?
“Well, ask me in November after the Tour Championship,” he said.
Stewart has come back from injury before. In 1991, he was out for 10 weeks because of a disc problem that caused him to lose his strength in his left biceps.
Stewart won the U.S. Open that year, which means he has a good track record for coming back.
“Yeah, I ought to see if I could get injured more often so I could come back,” he said.
This is the 17th year on the PGA Tour for the 40-year-old from Orlando, who has won nine tournaments and nearly $8 million in prize money. He had seven top-10 finishes last year, won $537,293, finished 33rd on the money list and ranked in the top 10 in putting.
Stewart’s last victory was in Houston in 1994, but that was when Scott Hoch virtually collapsed on the back nine and handed him the tournament. His only other victory in the last six years was the 1991 U.S. Open at Hazeltine.
These are mere numbers, according to Stewart, who said there is no reason to believe he is slowing down because of age, injury or anything else.
“I think I can win,” he said. “I don’t see why not, if I stay fit. I feel like I can compete and when I don’t, it’ll be time to get out. But just because I’m 40 years old, I don’t think age is a factor.”
Neither does Davis Love III, who said any list of players who should be considered favorites in any tournament they enter always should include the one wearing knickers.
“If Payne Stewart is in, he has a chance to win,” Love said.
Stewart doesn’t feel any pressure to win right away simply to become eligible for the Masters, where his five-year exemption for winning the Open has expired. If he doesn’t win and qualify for the Masters, Stewart said he has an alternate plan.
“I’ll have a week off,” he said. “Augusta does not rank right up there on the top of my list, you know. Augusta is the low end of my majors scale. I could take it or leave it. I do want to qualify and if I do play, I want to win, but I’d rather win the British Open.”
That’s understandable. Stewart has two top 10 finishes in 13 Masters, but his record is a lot better at the British Open. He finished second in 1985 at Royal St. George’s and in 1990 at St. Andrews, tied for fourth in 1987, tied for seventh in 1988 and tied for eighth in 1989.
And now that he’s put his silver-toed spikes back on the comeback trail, Stewart said he also has Ryder Cup ambitions and would like to play for a fifth time.
Knowing Stewart, that is certainly a possibility, said Tom Kite, the Ryder Cup captain.
“I have no doubts and no worries about Payne getting into shape,” Kite said. “I’m sure he’ll play well.
“But the key to coming back is to be as patient as possible. When everything is going good, it’s easy to be patient. Payne has a tendency to be a little impatient. It’s something he needs to work on. I’m glad to see him back, though, because this is where he belongs.”
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Payne Stewart Profile
* BORN: Jan. 30, 1957
* TURNED PRO: 1979
* TOUR VICTORIES (9): 1995--Shell Houston Open; 1991--U.S. Open; 1990--MCI Heritage Classic, GTE Byron Nelson Classic; 1989--MCI Heritage Classic, PGA Championship; 1987--Hertz Bay Hill Classic; 1983--Walt Disney World Classic; 1982 Quad Cities Open.
* BEST 1996 FINISHES: 2--Walt Disney World/Oldsmobile Classic; Tie 3--Honda Classic; Tie 4--Bob Hope Chrysler Classic, Freeport-McDermott Classic; Tie 6--MasterCard Colonial; Tie 9--Shell Houston Open; Tie 10--Kemper Open.
* TOP PRO FINISHES: Nine titles; 20 second-place finishes; 17 third; 112 Top 10.
* RANKINGS: Highest season rankings were No. 2 in 1989 and No. 3 in 1986 and 1990.
* MONEY: Earned $537,293 in 1996. Best year was 1989 when he earned $1,201,301. Had earned a total of $7,926,773 entering this season.
* WHAT: Nissan Open.
* WHERE: Riviera Country Club, 1250 Cpari Drive, Pacific Palisades.
* WHEN: Today through Sunday.
* SCHEDULE: Today-Tuesday, practice rounds; Wednesday, Chairman’s pro-am; Thursday-Sunday, tournament play.
* PRIZE MONEY: $1.4 million, $252,000 to winner.
* PLAYERS TO WATCH: Tiger Woods, Nick Faldo, Ernie Els, Mark O’Meara, Fred Couples, Davis Love III, Corey Pavin, Tom Watson, Jim Furyk.
* DEFENDING CHAMPION: Craig Stadler.
* LAST YEAR: Stadler’s six-under par 268, left him one shot ahead of Couples, Mark Brooks, Scott Simpson and Mark Wiebe.
* TV: USA Network: Thursday-Friday, 1-3 p.m.; Channel 2: Saturday, 12-3 p.m., Sunday, 1-3 p.m.
* TICKETS: Daily grounds pass $20, daily youth pass $10, daily senior pass $15, season pass $60, discount book of 12 daily passes $180, bronze parking pass at Veterans Administration Hospital $50. Tickets available by calling 213 482-1311 or all Ticketmaster outlets.
* PARKING: Shuttle service to and from the Longworth entrance of Riviera Country Club from V.A. Hospital parking lot. Take Santa Monica west from San Diego Freeway to Sawtelle. Turn right on Sawtelle and enter the hospital parking lot at the Ohio Street entrance.