Before the Flight

Traveling with Payne Stewart in his contented, but still contentious, final days
Payne Stewart, 1990 Open Championship
Listen to a reading of this feature by the author

IN THE DAYS AFTER the [1999] Ryder Cup, Payne addressed a two-paragraph letter to John Cornish, an attorney in Boston who served as the general chairman of the matches. He thanked Cornish, a member at The Country Club, for the work he and other volunteers had done for the event, which Payne called “one of the most memorable weeks of my life.” He asked if Cornish would share his gratitude with everyone who had helped. He placed it on a pile of envelopes to put in the mail.

Payne truly cared about the people who performed the quiet and uncelebrated duties that went into staging professional golf tournaments, but his letter also was another effort to mend bitterness over the way the Americans, players and spectators alike, had conducted themselves on Sunday in Brookline. The scathing adjudication of the tenor of the matches had only intensified since the closing ceremony. Mark James, the captain of the European team, warned that international players might boycott tournaments in the United States. He accused a spectator at The Country Club of spitting on his wife. Colin Montgomerie disclosed that his seventy-year-old father, the respected secretary at Royal Troon in Scotland, had felt so threatened by the boorishness in Boston that he’d fled the course early. An official with the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews in Scotland called the atmosphere “a bear pit” and said he was “embarrassed for golf.” Organizers in charge of the next Ryder Cup, scheduled for 2001 in England, announced plans for tighter security and far less tolerance for unbecoming behavior.

A British golf correspondent said he’d felt like “a spectator in Rome when the Christians were thrown to the lions.” Another wrote, “The behavior of the American team, and not just on the seventeenth green, might have been juvenile, but it certainly wasn’t surprising. This is a country which is so insular that most Americans still believe that the Second World War was won by John Wayne.” Coverage in the US press avoided such insulting generalizations. But this much now was very clear: the more people discussed what called “the putt heard ’round the world,” the more they found fault in what had happened as a result of it.

The relentless heckling of Montgomerie and other Europeans made it worse. Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post devoted much of his September 28 column to praise for Payne and his concession on the eighteenth. It was, after all, the final act of the thirty-third Ryder Cup—literally the last thing that happened in the last match. “The moment of sportsmanship exemplified the best in golf,” Boswell wrote. “Unfortunately, it glittered in stark contrast to much else that transpired during one of the most exciting days the game has ever known.” Boswell found in Payne a reason to aspire to the spirit of civility Mark James and Ben Crenshaw had tried to promote in the black-tie gala before the matches. “In the end, the American celebration will be remembered as just another piquant bit of Ryder Cup lore,” Boswell concluded. “We got the cup back. But there’s a tarnish on it.”

Payne had a lot of time to think about that tarnish. He flew to Scotland the next week for the Alfred Dunhill Cup at the Old Course at St Andrews, a three-player team competition with his old friends [Tom] Lehman and [Mark] O’Meara. The long trans-Atlantic flight gave Payne another opportunity to reflect and wonder how the Americans would be received in a country that viewed golf as a birthright. They saw their appearance there as a chance to make amends. They hoped for a fair hearing and a fresh start.

Though weary from the Ryder Cup and ready for a long rest in Orlando with his wife and children, Payne was eager to compete again. He’d signed an equipment contract earlier that year with Golfsmith, a Texas company known primarily for selling components to club-makers. Golfsmith had acquired Lynx Golf, which made a popular line of irons, and Payne had consulted with the company to design and market a new forged iron that he had yet to play. He took a bag of them to debut at the Dunhill. He left the old Mizunos at home.

The Dunhill Cup was the encore for the three aging American shot-makers. When they arrived at the Old Course, the gallery regarded them as what they were in the middle days of October 1999: setting suns, veterans on the far side of their primes with their major championships behind them, relics of golf more in the manner of Jones and Hogan and Nicklaus, not Duval and Mickelson and Woods. The crowds in St Andrews granted Payne and his teammates many of the courtesies the spectators in Boston had not. Aware throughout their first rounds of how their every step would be scrutinized, the Americans heard no ill will. In fact, they heard almost nothing at all. “Polite silence,” the newspapers reported as the top-seeded US team beat New Zealand to advance to the second stage of the Dunhill.

“They were very appreciative of good golf and very warm,” Lehman reported. “I’m not a monster. I’m not a rogue. I’m not a hooligan.”

The warm reception continued. The good golf from the Americans did not. They lost to Italy and Sweden, two of the sixteen nations competing. Spain won. Swinging his new clubs from Golfsmith, Payne lost to every opponent he played and determined his prototype irons needed more work before he would use them again. Peter Kessler, a broadcaster for the Golf Channel, found Payne after his round, and the two of them sat on the ancient stone steps behind the eighteenth green. Kessler asked him to do a television show with him at the end of the season. Payne wasn’t the only good story in golf—no one could get enough of the emergent stars like Woods and [Sergio] García—but his story resonated with people who appreciated journeys both professional and personal. Kessler took great pride in his ability to probe the humanity of the biggest names in golf. He wanted the world to hear Payne share his testimony. He thought it could be one of the more memorable and revealing interviews he would ever do.

“We’ll both be in Orlando in November,” Payne told Kessler, “so let’s play golf, and I’ll come do the show.” He added, “It’s not like we don’t have all the time in the world.”

Payne returned to the United States to finish a 1999 season that had exceeded his every hope. All he’d wanted to do was make the Ryder Cup team. Instead, he’d won again for the first time since 1995, and he’d beaten a crop of powerful young players at the U.S. Open with a yardage book full of cautionary notes, a newfangled putter, and that pullback motion of his. He’d finished second twice that summer. He’d earned more than $2 million. He had not a care in the world.

He and Tracey attended a banquet on Friday, October 15, at the Portofino Bay Hotel in Orlando. The First Orlando Foundation presented him with a glass sculpture of an eagle, an award that recognized his charitable giving. Payne and Tracey earlier had announced a $500,000 gift from their new foundation to enhance the lives of children in Orlando. He told the gathering that a group of his friends had donated an additional $700,000 to the cause.

When Payne rose to speak to the guests, he adjusted his checkered cummerbund and bow tie. “I think that we all have something in common,” he said, “in that we all have dreams. And the thing about dreams is that sometimes you get to live them out. I’ve always dreamed about playing golf for a living. And here I am, living out my dream.”

The next day, Payne flew to Austin, Texas, to speak to the Golf Clubmakers Association about his new affiliation with Golfsmith and the Lynx brand of irons. It was a casual affair; Payne wore khaki pants, a black blazer, and a red tie on a pale blue shirt with a white collar. More than 350 people listened as he gripped the lectern at the Renaissance Hotel and, without a script, bumbled through a few clumsy words about the irons and his association with the Company.

He then paused. His mind drifted.

He began to remember.

Payne had been feeling nostalgic since the conclusion of the Ryder Cup. Until this year, he hadn’t been inclined to talk about the past, but his success on the golf course and his satisfaction with his life now filled him with wistful appreciation for where he had been, where it all began.

He was loose and vibrant and warm at the dais as the banquet room in Austin fell silent. He described how, as an ornery boy learning golf in Missouri, he’d discovered his purpose through the game, how its artifacts felt like a talisman in his hands, how he used to sand the finish from the heads of persimmon drivers to admire the grain of the wood. He mentioned the loving home his parents had given him and his two older sisters. He said he learned his passion for competition from his father. He told a story about his first job after college in 1979, a position he’d held for two weeks at a men’s clothing store in Springfield. He said his first paycheck for two weeks of work was worth $83.75. He said he stared at the figure on the check, remembering how he’d won $300 on side bets playing golf recently at Hickory Hills. He decided then and there to quit selling shirts.

“The golf course was where I belonged,” he told the clubmakers.

Payne smiled often as he spoke. It was clear he was at ease. He was charming and buoyant, punctuating his stories with laugh lines and self-deprecation. He described his two years in Asia, where he studied players with inferior instruction and inferior equipment, scrappy men who beat him week after week on inferior golf courses. He said he’d wondered, “What do they know about this game that I don’t?” He said he realized those players understood their limits. They knew who they were and who they were not. It would take Payne a long time to understand his limits, but now, in the tenth month of 1999, at the age of forty-two years, he did.

He recalled for the clubmakers how he’d met Tracey in Malaysia. He described his impression of her as she’d entered the room, how he’d noticed her hair and her eyes, how she’d seemed to glow. He told a story about one of their early dates, when he’d tried to use a number of American credit cards to pay for dinner and how each one had been rejected. He said he’d worried in that moment that Tracey wouldn’t take him seriously. He said he’d thought he lost his chance with her. Now their eighteenth anniversary was two weeks away, on November 10. “She is the reason why I’ve been so successful,” Payne said. His father, he added, eventually accepted her, and by the time he died, Bill Stewart recognized that Tracey wasn’t a threat to his son’s potential to become a great player of golf. She was its assurance.

“He understood that she was good for me,” he said.

Payne had spoken for thirty minutes, all of it without notes, about his life and his work. He’d talked less about himself and more about the important people, like his parents and Tracey, who’d made his career possible. The banquet room felt like a reunion of old friends and family—intimate, trusting, connected, communal. The people there, many of them strangers, felt close to Payne, and he to them. He invited questions. A dozen hands rose.

A man in the audience asked about what Payne hoped to accomplish in 2000. Payne feigned surprise, pretending as if he’d never once given it a thought. He said he was confident he could win another major, and he thought about the next U.S. Open, which would be at Pebble Beach, one of those places where, no matter what condition his game was in, he always seemed to play his best golf. Payne knew his chances were fading. He praised the way Duval and Mickelson and Woods attacked the game in ways he never did or could. But he also believed in guile. He felt certain that, if it came down to him and someone half his age on the last hole at Pebble, he would rise.

“It’s not always about power and strength,” Payne told the gathering. He smiled again. He’d proved that. 

The man on the dais had been taking inventory since the end of the Ryder Cup. He’d recently told friends that if he died now he’d be at peace.

“When you have such a special year, what do you do?” he said. “You really have to look deep down inside.” 

The room went quiet again. A wave of reflection swept the darkened space. Payne wasn’t often the source of such introspection, but the approaching closure of the 1999 season, the occasion to remember and distill, summoned that emerging side of Payne. A man at a six-top table asked for advice. He wanted to know what Payne would tell a boy or girl who wanted to play professional golf. Payne said he would encourage balance. Work at it, he said. Commit to it. But don’t get lost in it. Don’t neglect the other things that matter, said the man who sometimes had, who added, “Enjoy life. Because it’s short.”

Back in Orlando, tour officials finished preparations to the Magnolia and Palm courses at Walt Disney World. It was time for the National Car Rental Classic, a popular tournament since its founding in 1971 given its proximity to Isleworth, Bay Hill, and the other neighborhoods where tour players lived. Payne and his fellow Orlando residents liked the Disney tournament. It required no hotel rooms, courtesy cars, restaurant reservations, or airports. The out-of-town players also enjoyed it; they brought their families, and their wives and children could go to Splash Mountain or Magic Kingdom while they played golf. Payne often invited the veterans to his mansion on the lake for a cookout on the patio and a walk to the dock.

“It’s always nice to play here,” he said on a practice-round day. “It’s special.”

It was never lost on Payne what Disney and the Classic had meant to his career. He’d earned his tour card at Disney. He’d won his second tournament there in 1983. He’d never missed a start in the Classic, where spectators embraced him as a neighbor and friend, one of theirs. Disney delivered dreams. Payne faced a stout field—Woods, [Hal] Sutton, Lehman, his friend Paul Azinger, and others—but he had to wonder: Would it happen again? Could it? He put the Mizuno irons back in his golf bag with the SeeMore putter. He decided he would play the old forged irons through the Tour Championship the week after the Classic. He checked the weather forecast for the opening round Thursday. Rain.

But the weekend and the days beyond looked clear. Payne was relieved. He was flying Monday morning early. He’d been talking lately with Charlie Adams, his old friend and teammate from SMU, about a consulting role in a project in North Texas involving a golf course, and he’d arranged to lease a business jet with a couple of his agents to see the property that afternoon. He’d been thinking about design work as a natural epitaph to his playing career, as Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer had done. Payne imagined borrowing his favorite features from golden age courses like the Olympic Club, Pebble Beach, and Pinehurst—maybe even a hint of The Country Club, with its curious angles, dramatic bunkering, and scruffy rough—and lending them to a place that would bear his name as the architect of record. He was sure he could create a routing with the kind of flair and style that recreational golfers would expect of a self-styled Missouri showman famous for his ubiquitous plus fours, flat cap, and gold-tipped Shoes.

Payne reported Thursday for his first round at the Classic, which he played with Azinger. The forecast proved true. Rain delayed play, giving him time to fill. Mark McCumber, a ten-time winner on the tour and part-time broadcaster for ESPN, found Payne, who agreed to a quick interview. The subject turned to comments made after the Ryder Cup by Peter Alliss, the respected British golf analyst and ABC broadcaster, who’d told a European newspaper, “Americans are totally different to us. They might as well be Chinese.”

Payne was tired of debating the conduct of the US team and its fans. It had been a month since the matches, after all. He’d hidden his frustration well, but he couldn’t help himself now, not even in this season of personal and professional redemption, when his reputation and self-awareness had grown so much. Squinting his eyes and baring his teeth, Payne leaned into the microphone.

“I just want Peter Allis to know that all of us American golfers on the Ryder Cup team, we are Chinese, too,” he said in a mock Asian accent. “Thank you very much.”

The indignation was swift. Radio talk show hosts raked him. His hometown newspaper in Orlando called it a “major blunder.” Other commentators framed the incident as something between a sense of American superiority, stereotypical white-male-athlete privilege, and subtle racism. ESPN kept airing the clip, reminding its viewers that despite how long it had been since his last public misstep and how much he had evolved and matured, Payne Stewart was who he was, and there might be a part of him that would never grow up, like a modern-day Peter Pan without the innocence. Payne being Payne, as Mark O’Meara had said before the Ryder Cup. It was like 1990 all over again.

When play at Disney resumed, reporters banded together near the eighteenth green and waited for Payne to finish his first-round 71. He apologized, but he also didn’t understand the controversy, and he wasn’t entirely convinced he had anything to be sorry for. He was just trying to have a good time. He was just trying to be witty. He was just trying to annoy Peter Alliss. He’d managed to offend a lot of other people, though, and after another round of 71 on Friday and a missed cut, Payne strode briskly to his car. He had no interest in discussing it anymore.

“I said all I have to say yesterday,” he told a couple of reporters.

Those would be his last public words.

Tiger Woods won the Classic by a shot over Ernie Els of South Africa. It was his sixth win of 1999 and the thirteenth of a career nearing full roar and bloom. Payne spent the weekend at home, where he avoided the press, small-talked with Tracey and her parents (they were visiting from Australia), cooked for Chelsea and Aaron (Aaron, who had a Little League football game Saturday, caught a touchdown pass that his father saw), checked NFL scores (the nearest team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, beat the Chicago Bears), wondered how Doc Rivers and his Orlando Magic might fare against Charlotte in the upcoming first game of the season (they would lose), and prepared for his trip to Texas. The year was almost over. Payne packed ten ensembles of shirts, plus fours, and flat caps for the Tour Championship and the new World Golf Championships tournament the following week in Spain, which would be his last official start of 1999. He practiced Sunday at Isleworth. That night, his next-door neighbor and close friend, tour rules official Jon Brendle, dialed Payne from his front yard and tried to coax him to go to a Kenny Wayne Shepherd show. Brendle saw Payne in his bedroom window as they spoke, a backlit silhouette of the showman in the dark. Payne usually would be quick to accept such an offer—the trinity of cold beer, loud music, and fellowship always sounded like the right way to spend a long and spirited evening on the town. But not on this one. Payne had to be at the Orlando airport for a flight scheduled to leave the ground by 9:30 in the morning.

Next time, the silhouette told Brendle. Drink one for me.

Payne retired early. His alarm woke him before 7:00. He prepared his golf bag: the Mizuno irons, the SeeMore putter, the titanium Titleist driver. He blew kisses to his family from the garage stairs. Tracey pulled away to take Aaron and Chelsea to school, passing boxes of the Orlando Sentinel bearing a large picture of a triumphant Woods above the fold on the front page. The newspaper reported also that the Yankees had taken a 2–0 lead in the World Series and that a gunman had killed someone at an Orlando shopping center. There was an article about plans Orlando was considering to prepare for the next big hurricane next to an article about hopes to grow the business footprint of the city. Another story promised a pleasant week ahead in Central Florida: if you like perfect weather, the headline declared, stick around.

Payne promised Aaron and Chelsea he would see them in two weeks. He told them he would miss them, and he told them to be good for their mom. He watched without a second thought as his wife, thirteen-year-old daughter, and ten-year-old son disappeared down the road. The sky was so clear he could see all the way to space. He left for the airport, as he had so many times before, and passed a thousand strangers who, in a few hours, would be riveted to their televisions, watching to see what would happen to him.

Payne Stewart, British Open at St Andrews
Photo by Simon Bruty/Allsport

The Last Stand of Payne Stewart is now in paperback and can be purchased at major retailers and at