Payne Stewart’s and Michael Campbell’s journeys to their respective U.S. Open Championships at Pinehurst were similar in many ways
Sadly neither of Pinehurst’s U.S. Open champions will grace the fairways of No. 2 on June 12 when the 2014 championship begins. Payne Stewart lost his life in an airplane mishap only three months after winning the 1999 Open, and Michael Campbell’s game peaked with his triumph in June 2005 and he recently announced that injuries and personal troubles would prevent his entry this year.
But for one week in the American national championship, they were the very best in the business, this Missourian with the plus-fours and graceful swing and this gritty New Zealander with steel nerves over a 4-iron and razor-sharp putter.
Each had paid his dues in professional golf by the time the 1999 and 2005 U.S. Opens came to Pinehurst No. 2. Stewart was 42 with eleven PGA Tour wins, Campbell was 36 with six victories on the European Tour. Both were married and the father of two children.
Each had rebounded from earlier slumps, Stewart going nearly four years from 1995-98 without a win after an unfortunate change of equipment, and Campbell losing his exempt status on the European Tour in1996 after a severe wrist injury sustained in the New Zealand Open in late 1995. He threw his clubs across a hotel room in 1998 and vowed to quit the game.
Each had been steeled by earlier setbacks in major championships, Stewart losing a four-shot lead in the U.S. Open one year before at The Olympic Club and Campbell sleeping on a third-round British Open lead at St. Andrews in 1995 before yielding on Sunday amid the pressure to eventual champion John Daly.
Each had ignition sparks earlier in their respective championship years, Stewart winning at Pebble Beach in February 1999 and Campbell missing five cuts in early 2005 before swing changes made under the tutelage of new full-time coach Jonathan Yarwood started nestling in. “We’ve redone everything,” Campbell said. He also retained a new sports psychologist and joined the management stable of IMG’s London office.
Each was in good rhythm and comfortable mindset on Thursday morning as curtains lifted on the Open. Stewart missed the cut in Memphis the week before, arrived in Pinehurst on Saturday and had mapped out his game plan for attacking the devilish greens by Sunday night. Campbell checked into Pine Needles on Sunday, played a practice round on No. 2 on Monday morning and spent five hours back at Pine Needles that afternoon working with Yarwood on adjustments to his putting stroke and lagging long putts with his eyes closed.
Each benefitted from a golf tip from a random source, Stewart’s wife Tracey telling him after Saturday’s third round he was moving his head on his putting stroke and Vijay Singh critiquing Campbell’s bunker play during their Monday practice round. Singh told Campbell that he was cutting across the ball on his sand shots and spinning it too much. Singh showed Campbell how to flop the ball out high and let it roll out with less spin, and Campbell used the technique to hole out from a bunker on seventeen on Saturday and get up-and-down on eleven and fifteen for pars on Sunday .
Each played solid if unspectacular golf for three days, jockeying expertly into position and letting the field melt away with a cacophony of mistakes amid the heinous rough and blazing greens of Pinehurst No. 2. Stewart shot rounds of 68, 69 and 72 to earn a spot in the final pairing on Sunday, and Campbell carded rounds of 71, 69 and 71 to start the final round one group ahead of leader Retief Goosen.
Each heard the roars up ahead in the final round as Tiger Woods mounted a charge. In 1999, Woods missed five-footers for par on eleven and seventeen and then agonized as a potential tying putt on eighteen hung on the lip; he finished two strokes back. Just three years into his professional career, Woods would learn to make those five-footers in major championships. Six years later, the noise emanating from Woods’ birdie on fifteen cutting the lead to one momentarily distracted Campbell back on fourteen, but the Kiwi collected himself and nailed his 4-iron to five feet, made the putt and was never bothered again as Woods bogeyed sixteen and seventeen and finished second, two strokes back.
Each, of course, made a lot of putts. Stewart took 111 putts for seventy-two holes and twenty-four on the final day, most notably his downhill birdie bomb from twenty-five feet on sixteen and his fifteen-footer for par on eighteen. Campbell took just 113 putts for four rounds, fourth best in the field, including ten one-putts on Sunday.
Each birdied the seventeenth on Sunday, Stewart spearing a six-iron to four feet for a birdie and Campbell stroking a twenty-five footer into the hole, the kind of lag putt he’d worked so hard to perfect on Monday afternoon at Pine Needles. Campbell hit his tee shot on seventeen, then ducked quickly into a port-a-john in the woods to the right. But he was there not for the usual reason; instead, he spent forty-five seconds doing a series of eye exercises mandated by a doctor months earlier.
Each partied long into the night after all the requisite autograph and interviewing duties of a new champion. Stewart drove ninety miles to the Hillsborough home of caddie Mike Hicks that night for a charity exhibition scheduled for Monday, and they joined Paul Azinger, Fred Couples and Hal Sutton at Hicks’ home watching replays of the final round on TV until 4 a.m. Campbell returned to Pine Needles, where he joined a half dozen fellow Kiwis, their host Peggy Kirk Bell and her family and others for a party that lasted past 3 a.m. Campbell poured Dom Perignon champagne into the Open trophy, drank from it and passed it around to everyone.
And each, sorrowfully, reached the pinnacle of their golf careers on those third Sundays in June. Payne Stewart died on October 25, 1999, when the Learjet he was riding from Orlando to Dallas lost cabin pressure, killing two pilots and four passengers. Michael Campbell won the HSBC World Match Play Championship at Wentworth in September 2005, but soon his game went into a downward spiral. He’s not made a cut in the Masters since and only one in the U.S. Open. In late May 2014, he was ranked No. 545 in the World Golf Ranking.
The deck is clear for a new champion to emerge on June 15, and you can bet the dominoes have been falling his way in the shadows for some time now.
Lee Pace is a regular contributor to the Pinehurst Blog. He latest book, “The Golden Age of Pinehurst—The Rebirth of No. 2,” is available in all retail shops at Pinehurst.