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.