HONORING THE GAME
'The Last Stand of Payne Stewart' October 25, 2019 By Kevin Robbins

The following is an excerpt from the new book by author Kevin Robbins entitled, "The Last Stand of Payne Stewart: The Year Golf Changed Forever," which was published by Hachette Books. Two-time U.S. Open champion Payne Stewart and five others died in a private plane crash 20 years ago, on Oct. 25, 1999. It came four months after he edged Phil Mickelson by one stroke at Pinehurst Resort & Country Club's Course No. 2 for the second of his two U.S. Open titles. 

To get more information about the book or to purchase it, click here

Payne arrived an hour before what he assumed was nothing more than the final U.S. Open round of the twentieth century and his next, but not last, chance to win one. His walk to his three o’clock starting time conjured the same steps taken by other men who, through the course of their own final rounds in their own national championships, achieved a station of consequence and permanence in the lore of golf. Legacies hinged on those walks, just as Payne’s did on that gloomy, overcast Sunday. These were the U.S. Opens people would remember and celebrate as long as golf mattered. This is what Payne Stewart approached when he finished his last swing on the range, another drawing three- metal, a rehearsal of his first shot, and wheeled to face Pinehurst No. 2 for the last time in 1999.

He and Phil Mickelson left the range with their caddies on a misty, sixty-eight-degree Sunday afternoon in the sandhills. They processed behind the eighteenth green to the first hole and acknowledged the spectators standing and sitting in the bleachers. Roger Maltbie, the NBC on-course commentator assigned to the last pairing, watched Payne closely. He tried to judge the level of turmoil inside the man wearing the navy plus fours and flat cap and rain shell with no sleeves, which Payne had cut away with scissors so he could swing with abandon. But Maltbie saw nothing to suggest any turmoil at all.

Payne took his stance on the left side of the first tee so he could better draw the ball, his favored and safest shape. He banged his three-metal to seven-iron distance. He watched from the fairway as Woods made his birdie putt. Cheers bounced through the pines. His own approach covered the flag on its path through the fog and stopped fifteen feet from the hole. More cheers. Payne saw the line. All he had to do was strike the putt firmly enough to roll through the water coating the green. As he made his stroke, Johnny Miller told NBC viewers to expect a turn to the right at the end.

“Looks good,” Miller said, a moment before Payne’s ball turned right and dove into the hole. Cheers again. His one-shot lead grew to two.

All morning long, as he was waiting to leave for the course, Payne had tried to think only about giving himself a chance. He tried not to remember the back nine at Baltusrol in ’93. He tried not to brood about Olympic. He certainly didn’t want to start contemplating the role of luck, because luck was something he couldn’t manipulate, so he thought instead about acceptance, a personal state of grace. He’d decided before his first swing that he would accept what Pinehurst would give to him or take from him. Whatever happened would be his alone to own.

Payne accepted the birdie on the first hole, but not as a symbol of anything beyond his wise choice on the tee to hit the three-metal, the solid seven-iron to the green, and a sure putt. His countenance on the second tee, a 447-yard par-four, betrayed no emotion. He drove his ball well to the fairway. He chose his three-iron from his bag and picked the intermediate target on his line. He made the pullback motion. He took his cut.

The shot sailed right. Payne knew immediately that it was a bad miss. For the first time all week, he’d hit into one of those greenside spots shaded in blue in his yardage book. He thought about acceptance on the walk to his ball. His first chip crested the edge of the green and rolled back. His second left him with a six-footer for bogey. Acceptance again.

He made the putt.

Payne birdied the next hole with a nine-iron to two feet. It was his last birdie on the front nine. He and Mickelson came to the tenth tee at one under par in their rounds.

For the next ninety minutes, the players with the real prospect of winning made no substantial ground on their goal. Woods was even for the day when he missed a short par putt on eleven. Duval never factored. Singh had made seven straight pars before birdies on the eighth and tenth, but even his final-round 69, the best score among the last ten players on the course, wasn’t enough.

By the time Payne and Mickelson came to the long sixteenth, it was becoming clear to anyone watching that one of them would win. Payne had made two bogeys since the turn, with one birdie, which meant he was at even par for the championship. Mickelson was floating through his round, one birdie against no bogeys, a ship with a full mainsail on calm seas. He felt like he was in absolute control of the tournament. He led Payne by one and Woods and Singh by two with three holes to play, and when Payne missed another green at sixteen, he looked to be right. Woods bogeyed the hole ahead.

Reporters started typing their coronation stories about a man who won the U.S. Open, a long-awaited first major, while awaiting a page from his pregnant wife. Outside, the mist stopped falling. Then it started again. Tracey watched the tournament on the television in the rental cottage. She started to get her things together for the short trip to the course. Spectators lined the finishing holes. They were ten deep in spots. Inside, Colin Montgomerie, who had completed his round and would tie for fifteenth, was asked about the difficulty of No. 2, especially the stretch Payne and Mickelson were preparing to play.

“Lady luck plays a huge role here,” he said.

“There’s a long way to go in this golf tournament,” Hicks had told Payne on the twelfth hole. He’d said those same words a year earlier on the back nine at Olympic, but it would mean something different in ’99. Payne holed a twenty-five-foot par putt that wandered through two opposing downhill breaks on the sixteenth green. Mickelson had eight feet to keep his lead.

“Biggest putt of his life,” Johnny Miller said.

He missed.

The dales and hollows hummed with the commotion of forty thousand people bracing for a finish they suspected they would never forget. Payne and Mickelson were tied at even par with two holes to play. No one spoke on the seventeenth tee. Payne rifled his six- iron, that familiar Mizuno, to four feet. An enormous roar vented from the gathering below. Mickelson dropped a high fade with his seven-iron to six feet. The cheers from the green volleyed back to the tee in waves. The two players marched to the green in silence, marked their golf balls, and tried their best to ignore the weight of what they were about to do.

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