In an exclusive excerpt from Kevin Robbins’ upcoming book The Last Stand of Payne Stewart, Robbins chronicles Stewart’s life through an intimate look at his thrilling – and tragic – 1999 season. Twenty years later, and presented here for the first time anywhere, Robbins’ careful examination of how Payne played the 72nd hole of the U.S. Open on Pinehurst No. 2 reveals just how much he changed as a man.
Payne Stewart never doubted his decision to hit driver on the eighteenth hole, and he liked the look of the rising shot until he and Hicks walked up the hill and saw where the ball lay. It was in the right rough, damp and deep, the worst lie they’d encountered in seventy-one holes. It was bad luck at a bad time, especially with Mickelson in the fairway with a good angle to the hole and a midiron in his hand. NBC trained its cameras on Payne’s face. Bells rang faintly at a church in the distant village. Ron Crow, the walking scorer with Payne, heard the throaty welcome of the gallery and thought, The ground is vibrating. Payne consulted his orange-covered yardage book. Pinehurst gave. Pinehurst took. Acceptance came.
He decided to give himself a chance.
The indelible final scene at the 1999 U.S. Open earned its place in the lore of golf for actions taken and options dismissed. The USGA had wanted to present players with options from the shorter rough on No. 2, but Payne convinced himself he had only one. He calculated the yardage to the cross bunkers short of the green. He slashed an eight-iron shot to seventy-eight yards in the fairway, two paces short of the bunkers, “the most boring play in sports,” as he’d called it at the PGA Championship at Shoal Creek in 1990.
It won him the U.S. Open.
By the time Payne stroked the winning putt—fifteen feet, scampering up the slope, bending right, slowing, and gone—Tracey had arrived from the cottage. She saw him punch the air and kick out his leg. She heard him howl. She watched him lift Hicks from the ground and hug him so tightly she could see the veins on his forearms. She wondered what he told Mickelson when he took the face of the runner-up in his hands. (This isn’t the important thing, Payne had told the runner-up. The important thing is that you’re going to be a father.) It was too loud to hear. It was too loud to think. She saw him kiss his ball.
Hal Sutton, who’d finished with a share of seventh, watched the celebration on a television in the locker room. Maturity won the tournament, he thought.
Johnny Miller told viewers, “You don’t expect that out of anybody, especially a guy that’s forty-two.”
The men in charge of mowing the course thought about the curious role of timing. They’d cut the greens hours later than usual in an effort to keep the green speeds high in the persistent mist. It occurred to Paul Jett, the superintendent, that the later mowing schedule might’ve allowed the one revolution of the ball that had made Payne the champion.
John Garrity, a reporter for Sports Illustrated, dialed the number for Bee Stewart in Springfield. He asked Payne’s delirious mother for her thoughts.
“Payne talks more with God now,” she told him. “He’s a different man.”