Savannah, Ga. – Stephany Powell doesn’t remember anything from the moment of impact.
One minute she was driving down a windy, rural road in southwest Missouri with three friends, one of whom was her boyfriend, and the next day she was lying in a Branson, Mo., hospital, with 176 stitches in her head, a ruptured spleen, a punctured liver and two broken ankles.
The other three occupants of that Ford Mustang all escaped with minor bruises. Her boyfriend chipped a tooth. Another friend suffered a broken nose and chipped a tooth. The car’s fourth occupant bruised his rear end from a spring that punctured the seat.
Powell, then a 20-year-old college student, lost four pints of blood, and had to be brought back to life twice with electronic defibrillator paddles.
“I had casts on both feet for four weeks,” said the 49-year-old Powell, who shot an opening-round 88 for Missouri Tuesday in the 2011 USGA Women’s State Team Championship on the Palmetto Course at The Landings Club. “I was lucky that they were not terrible breaks. But I lost like 40 pounds in two weeks.”
That accident was just the first of many twists and turns for the Springfield, Mo., native.
On Oct. 25, 1991, three days before she turned 30, she lost her father to a lung/heart disorder.
On that same day eight years later, reigning U.S. Open champion Payne Stewart, a childhood friend and golf companion of Powell’s, died in a tragic plane crash in rural South Dakota.
A few years later, Powell and her husband adopted a 10-month-old girl, Erika. Within three weeks of bringing her home, the baby passed away from a rare brain disorder called leukodystrophy. Erika would be 16 today.
For all those reasons, Powell wears a bracelet with the inscription, “It Is What It Is.”
Listening to D.J. Gregory’s speech at the players’ dinner on Sunday night at The Landings brought it all into perspective. Gregory suffers from cerebral palsy, but he hasn’t let the disease disrupt his livelihood. In 2008, Gregory walked every round at every PGA Tour stop and continues to do so today, raising tens of thousands of dollars for children’s charities.
So making an 8 during Tuesday’s first round only brought a smile and laughter from Powell.
“I turned to the gallery and said I just made a double par,” she said.
As a girl, Powell played a lot of golf with the late Stewart. Even though he was five years her senior, both belonged to Hickory Hills Country Club in Springfield. She was good enough to play in three U.S. Girls’ Juniors and to win the Missouri High School Championship three times, continuing a legacy at her high school with Cathy Reynolds, who later played on the LPGA Tour and won the 1981 Golden Lights Championship.
The friendship between Powell and Stewart remained long after the two graduated high school and college, Stewart from Southern Methodist and Powell from Drury University. She had a golf scholarship to play at Stevens College in Columbia, Mo., but she broke a finger before enrolling and eventually transferred to Drury.
Powell continued to follow Stewart’s burgeoning professional career. After he won his first U.S. Open in 1991, he came back to Springfield for a celebration. While at Powell’s house and after a few drinks, the games began. Powell bet Stewart that he couldn’t hit a wedge shot off her wooden floor over the island in her kitchen without hitting the ceiling.
Stewart took the dare and completed the task, leaving a small indentation in the floor, and Powell minus one bottle of fine tequila.
On a more serious note, Powell went to the 1991 Shell Houston Open to watch Stewart play when an advisory flashed across one of the scoreboards. Powell was urged to immediately call home due to a family emergency.
With Powell’s car in Tulsa, Okla., at the time, Stewart arranged for her to be flown back to Springfield to be with her ailing father. He died later that fall.
When she served as the head women’s golf coach at Missouri State, Powell often took her team to the Orlando, Fla., area for a college tournament. They would also stop at Bay Hill to watch Stewart.
“When he saw me, he would say, ‘Hey coach, welcome to my office,’” said Powell, who coached Missouri State from 1990-2001. “He and I were a lot alike.”
When Stewart’s plane crashed in 1999, just four months after his memorable U.S. Open victory at Pinehurst No. 2, Payne’s sister, Susan, called Powell. She came over to help comfort the family, especially Stewart’s mother, Bea.
Bea asked Powell to help with answering the constant telephone calls from family, friends and media. One of those calls was from CBS News anchor Dan Rather. Outside, reporters from CNN, ESPN and other outlets were huddled around the house.
As the day wore on and Bea finally came to the realization that her son was gone she brought Powell to her bedroom for a chat.
“This was already a bad day for me anyway because I had lost my father eight years earlier,” said Powell, recalling the moment. “I told her I’ll never forget this day. And she said, ‘I won’t either. I can’t think of anyone who I would rather be sitting here right now than you.’”
Later that week, Powell arranged for the pallbearers and ushers at Stewart’s memorial service at the Second Baptist Church, where more than 7,000 well-wishers came to pay their respects.
Powell still gets emotional thinking of that day.
But tears come to her eyes when her late adopted Erika is mentioned. She and her husband, who own and operate a saw shop in Springfield, didn’t know Erika had any medical issues when they went through the adoption agency.
So when the couple’s attorney made contact four months after her death to discuss another possible adoption, Powell and her husband immediately went to meet the biological parents. Both were students at Missouri State, the father a junior and the mother a freshman.
They met on a Friday, the child was born on Saturday and they brought him home on Monday.
Walker, now a 15-year-old high school sophomore, isn’t the only positive in Powell’s life. She recently was made a honorary life member of the Missouri Women’s Golf Association, where she has served a variety of roles, including vice president, and she was inducted into the Ozarks Golf Hall of Fame.
Considering everything that’s happened in her life, Powell wondered if all this goodness was some sort of an omen.
“But I was thinking, ‘Oh God, I am getting all these nice things, am I going to croak or something?” said Powell, rhetorically laughing at herself. “I’m not superstitious. These things have made me live life with a chuckle because you never know. That’s why I am a little goofy.”
But Powell can also play. She is a four-time runner-up at the Missouri Women’s Amateur and a three-time Missouri Girls’ Junior runner-up. She also qualified for a pair of U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateurs in the late 1980s when the championship was in its infancy.
Which made her 88 on Tuesday a little baffling. Powell turned in 6-over 41 and was going along fine until the quadruple-bogey 8 at the par-4 eighth hole, her 17th. A fried egg in a bunker led to several miscues.
Nevertheless, Powell came off the course the same way she entered it: with a smile.
What happened 30 years ago on that rural highway completely changed Powell’s outlook on life. She feels fortunate to be alive and enjoying the game she first took up as a 5-year-old in Springfield.
So whether it’s a 78 or 88, Powell is simply happy to be here.
“I just as easily could be gone as standing here talking to you [at The Landings],” she said. “Another day will come.”
David Shefter is a USGA senior staff writer. E-mail him at email@example.com.