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20 years after fatal plane crash, Payne Stewart still evokes classic golf memories

20 years after fatal plane crash, Payne Stewart still evokes classic golf memories
Payne Stewart celebrates after winning the U.S. Open golf championship at the Pinehurst No. 2 course in Pinehurst, N.C. on June 20, 1999. (Chuck Burton / Associated Press)

The morning mist was thick at Pebble Beach on the day before the start of the 2000 U.S. Open. Twenty-one professional golfers stood in a line along the 18th fairway and fired drives on command into the glistening sea.

The tribute, an alternative to a 21-gun salute, was in honor of Payne Stewart, who didn’t live to defend his title. He was killed in an October plane crash, four months after winning the 1999 U.S. Open at Pinehurst, N.C.

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This year marks the 20th anniversary of that victory, and the majority of players in this U.S. Open field weren’t around to meet Stewart, let alone compete against him. Still, his memory has lingered like that mist, from his throwback attire — the flat cap, colorful knickers and matching knee-high socks — to a liquid swing so classic and effortless it could have been crafted by Ben Hogan himself.

“Payne’s style wouldn’t have worked if he had a short, choppy, gross-looking swing,” said Paul Azinger, among his closest friends. “He had that long, fluid, rhythmic motion that everybody admired. You would watch Payne on TV, and then when the tournament’s over, you would run outside to try to imitate it. Payne was one of those guys who developed a rhythm for the viewer, and they’ve never forgotten it.”

More searing is the cruel memory of Stewart’s demise, which unfolded over several hours before a national audience. A private Learjet carrying Stewart and five others crashed on Oct. 25, 1999, near Aberdeen, S.D., after traveling 1,500 miles from its departure in Orlando, Fla.

It was essentially an aimless ghost flight, with the pilot, co-pilot and passengers apparently unconscious or dead for much of the journey. The cockpit voice recorder discovered in the wreckage featured the haunting sounds of a low-pressure alarm, consistent with suspicions there had been a catastrophic loss of cabin pressure.

Stewart, who died at 42, won 18 tournaments in his 19-year career on the PGA Tour yet endured a brutal slump in the 1990s, winning only once between 1991 and ’98. But 1999 was different, starting with his win at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, which set the stage for his victories at the U.S. Open and on the winning U.S. Ryder Cup team.

He experienced significant personal growth too, transforming from someone who was prickly and often unapproachable into one of the more popular and genial players on tour.

“He became a Christian, loved God and all that,” said Azinger, now a Fox analyst, who won 12 times on tour, including the 1993 PGA Championship. “He was more reflective. He’d refer to himself in the third person and say, ‘The old Payne Stewart wasn’t a very good guy, but this is a different Payne Stewart.’ ”

Sportswriter Kevin Robbins addresses that in depth in his soon-to-be-released book, “The Last Stand of Payne Stewart: The Year Golf Changed Forever.”

“It was remarkable the way that Payne came back from a potentially career-ending slump, and his redemption,” Robbins said. “He was a guy who looked at his life and wasn’t entirely satisfied. He wasn’t a bad guy at all, he was a good guy, I’ve come to believe. He just got in the way of himself sometimes. He said some things and did some things that he later regretted.

“We’ve all done that. We all want to be better people, and I think that’s why Payne’s story will resonate.”

Tiger Woods, for one, has a lot of fond memories of Stewart, and their back-and-forth hijinks.

“Payne was one of my mentors when I first came out on tour,” Woods said Tuesday, recalling how they had a running prank involving messing with each other’s shoes.

“Whoever had the late time better bring an extra pair of shoes,” he said. “We enjoyed doing that a couple of years on tour. He hazed me pretty good at Brookline [for the 1999 Ryder Cup] and a few other tournaments that we were all together as a team. And that's what made it fun. He was one of the jokesters. And as hard as he gave the needle, he could take it.”

Azinger said he will never fully recover from the loss of his close friend. Among those on board in the aimless plane with Stewart were agents Robert Fraley and Van Ardan, both of whom also represented Azinger. While millions were glued to news updates on the situation, an unaware Azinger was at Disney World with his family and had his phone turned off all day.

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“I had a flip phone back then, you used to get those vibrations when you get messages — vvvtt, vvvtt, vvvtt,” he said. “It was in my pocket and it just kept buzzing. I thought, ‘Oh God, something’s wrong.’ I thought something had happened to my parents. I talked to my brother and he told me what had happened, and then I hung up and talked to my dad and he said, ‘They’re all dead.’

“Van Ardan was my day-to-day guy. I talked to him every day of my life. And Robert Fraley, my wife and I were going to leave our kids to Robert and [wife] Dixie, that’s how much we loved them. And for Payne to be on there too. You have no idea how devastating that was for us. And it changed me as a person, not always in a good way.

“I was really untrusting of God, like, ‘How can that happen?’ It took me a long time to overcome that. That really impacted me hard. That left a big void in me, losing those three men in a blink of an eye.”

Azinger said he marvels at the strength of Stewart’s widow, Tracey, who raised their two children.

“We have two lives when you play on the PGA Tour, you have your tour life, and then you go home, and your friends there know nothing about your tour life,” Azinger said. “Tracey, she had to give up a whole half a life, and she lost her best friend. But she got through it.

“The devastation if you look back is pretty monumental. I’m sure there’s a lot of people who have had that kind of heartache in the past. I’ve survived it, Tracey has survived it, Payne’s children are doing really well. And Payne’s an icon. He’s an absolute icon.”

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