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Stewart’s son continues the family legacy in golf

At the time of his famous father’s unusually public death, Aaron Stewart was 10 years old, a fifth-grader.

“I was in class and I got called into the principal’s office,” Payne Stewart’s only son recalls of that nightmarish moment nearly a decade ago. “I thought I was in trouble.”

If only it had been so.

Instead, he soon learned what millions of television viewers already knew: His father, one of golf’s most recognizable figures and winner of three major championships, was gone.

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It was Oct. 25, 1999, and Payne Stewart had left his home outside Orlando, Fla., to fly by private plane to Dallas. Known as much for his traditional knickers and tam-o'-shanter as his championship resume, the flamboyant Stewart, 42, had won the U.S. Open for the second time only four months earlier.

He was on his way to Texas for a tournament, and to look at property for a golf course he planned to design.

Shortly after takeoff, however, the Learjet’s cabin lost air pressure and all aboard -- Stewart and five others -- were incapacitated, presumed dead. Set on autopilot, the plane flew on for four hours, Air Force jets shadowing it to see if anyone on board was alive but finding only frosted windows -- consistent with the loss of air pressure -- and no visible signs of movement inside.

Chris Hamilton, a pilot dispatched by the Air Force to investigate, later told ESPN, “It was like a ‘Twilight Zone.’ ”

Finally, after traveling about 1,400 miles, the ghost plane ran out of fuel and crashed into a South Dakota pasture.

Everyone on board was killed.

As the eerie scene played out on TV, Aaron Stewart says he was joined in the principal’s office by his sister, Chelsea.

Neither knew why.

“And then our neighbor came and picked us up, but nobody really said anything,” Aaron says. “He took us back to our house and a news truck was there; I thought that was weird. And then my sister and I went up into my mom’s room and she told us.”

Ten years later, his mother says, the pain still cuts deep.

“Time,” Tracey Stewart says from Florida, “does not heal all wounds. I don’t believe in that one. It’s still difficult.

“Not a day goes by that I don’t wish Payne was still here. It’s hard to believe it’s been nearly 10 years, but then there are other days when it feels like it was yesterday.”

Tracey, 49, lives in Isleworth Country Club in Windermere, Fla., where her neighbors include a number of PGA Tour pros, and says softly, “I’m doing OK. You do what you have to do.”

Of her grown children, she says, “I’m very proud of them. They’ve done well with the situation.”

Chelsea, 23, is a Clemson graduate and charity coordinator for the Tour Championship at East Lake in Atlanta.

And Aaron, 20, is a redshirt freshman golfer at Southern Methodist University, his father’s alma mater.

“He and his father look a lot alike,” SMU Coach Jay Loar says from Dallas. “You can tell that the apple did not fall far from the tree. I tell him all the time, he’s got great leadership qualities like his dad, he’s got the heart of a champion and competitive spirit of his dad. And he’s a ton of a fun to be around.”

And how does he dress?

“He doesn’t wear knickers,” Loar says, laughing, “but he’s a very sharp dresser. You can tell his last name is Stewart.”

That’s not always a blessing.

“Just because of who he is,” his mother says, “people expect him to be better. But he’s got a lot of learning to do.”

Says Aaron, who did not regularly crack the lineup at SMU this season: “When I’m not playing good, I just want to seep into the background, you know?”

When her husband was alive, Tracey notes, Aaron “couldn’t have cared less about golf,” so he’s behind in his development.

“He was into skateboarding and surfing and football and everything but golf,” she says. “So, unfortunately, he wasn’t able to take advantage of Payne’s lessons and skill.”

The younger Stewart did not get serious about golf until after the family moved to Isleworth -- and into a house designed by his parents -- about a year after his father’s death.

At that point, he says, “I kind of just fell in love with it.”

In Dallas, Stewart works not only with his SMU coach but also with Chuck Cook, his father’s former instructor.

The son remembers Payne Stewart not as a champion but as a father “because I wasn’t that into golf,” he says. Watching old tapes of his father is “cool,” Aaron notes, “but it’s got its drawbacks, because I could have learned so much from him.”

SMU’s Loar says he and Cook are “working overtime” to get Stewart caught up, “teaching him shots and teaching him how to flight the ball. But golf is a difficult game.”

Still, the coach sees a world of potential in a player who helped his high school team to a pair of runner-up finishes in the Florida state championships and plans to make golf a career.

“He’s not that far off,” Loar says.

Tracey Stewart sees something special in her son too.

“Not so much in his golf swing, because it’s totally different than his father’s,” she says, “but in Aaron’s mannerisms, I see Payne all the time. He’s very much like Payne.”

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jerome.crowe@latimes.com


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