March 1, 2002
I didn’t like Payne Stewart, at first.
In his first few years on the PGA Tour, I thought he came across as remarkably immature. According to contemporary press accounts, I was in good company.
It wasn’t as if Stewart was a complete jerk. Donating his winner’s check from the 1987 Bay Hill Classic to a local hospital was impressive. On that and other occasions I also saw signs that he deeply loved his wife and children, which is the best and only way to be as a husband and father.
All the same, for most of Stewart’s career I had the distinct impression that while he was a very talented golfer, he had quite a bit of growing up to do.
My attitude began to change when Stewart lost the 1993 U.S. Open to Lee Janzen. Stewart was remarkably gracious that day, as he was five years later in losing to Janzen again at the U.S. Open at Olympic Hills. By then Stewart showed other signs of significant maturity.
My admiration grew as I learned of Stewart’s deepening religious faith and observed his increasing ability to handle pressure, especially in his victory in the 1999 U.S. Open at Pinehurst.
Somehow it seemed completely fitting that a now-mature golfer, whose famous yet gentlemanly attire so well matched the old Ross course, found himself the winner of that particular Open.
I know where I was and what I was doing when Kennedy was shot, Nixon resigned, the Challenger blew up, O.J. was acquitted, and when two airliners crashed into the World Trade Center. To that odd collection I also add Stewart’s frozen death in a rented Lear jet on October 25, 1999.
Perhaps because of the intense media coverage of the accident, I didn’t rush out to read Larry Guest’s The Payne Stewart Story (Woodford Press, $24.95) when it first came out.
It’s well worth reading even now, just over two years from Stewart’s death.
Guest was extremely well placed to write this moving tribute. The now-retired Orlando sportswriter knew Stewart and many of Payne’s close friends from years of covering the PGA Tour. His reputation helped open conversational doors that might not have opened for others during those first painful months.
The book’s structure varies from the usual sports biographies. It’s similar to an extended obituary, with the sort of stories often heard during wakes and funerals. The framing device works well.
The first part opens with an interview with Tracy Stewart, Payne’s amazing wife. Her poise and inner strength in the immediate aftermath of the accident were clearly inspirational to her family and friends, as well as those watching the funeral on television.
The book then shifts to the accident itself. Guest gives a short course in how the private aviation industry works. He then details the possible causes of the accident based on the National Transportation Safety Board records and the military pilots who followed the jet to its eventual crash in South Dakota.
From there the story changes to the many ways in which the news of Stewart’ death staggered his family and close friends, and then covers the funeral services in which so many contributed so much.
The second part of the book includes funny and not-so-funny stores about Payne, primarily off the golf course. Guest shows the progression in Stewart’s passage away from sometimes antic or arrogant behavior to a better way of living one’s life.
In the third part, Guest delves into Stewart’s maturation as a professional golfer, finishing with his Pinehurst win and his classy contributions in the 1999 Ryder Cup.
The final segment focuses on Stewart’s spiritual growth, and his increasing interest in charity. In his last few years, Stewart clearly understood and took action to show that real contributions to one’s fellow man are not directly derived from personal accomplishment, but more from how one uses those accomplishments to help others.
A story about growth and redemption is not what one normally expects when reading about professional golfers. Larry Guest’s poignant character study makes it a central theme for his biography of Stewart.
It’s a nice legacy.