Payne Stewart, the divots, and two U.S. Opens
March 8, 2021

#InPinehurst | Golf

Payne Stewart had bad luck with his ball coming to rest in a fairway divot during the 1998 U.S. Open, and he didn’t like it. It happened again at Pinehurst, but he was ready for it.


Payne Stewart made a remarkable personal metamorphosis over the 1990s. Always a graceful and talented performer on the course, Stewart as a young tour pro wasn’t universally embraced away from the course as his somewhat bratty, churlish ways rubbed many he encountered the wrong way.

A variety of circumstances and lessons conspired over the 1990s to soften and smooth the edges, and the 42-year-old Stewart who came to Pinehurst for the 1999 U.S. Open was significantly more humble and likeable than the one who won the 1991 Open at Hazeltine.

Payne 2.0, wrote John Garrity in Sports Illustrated, was “a quieter version of Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas morning.”

“Payne had really come full circle from the person I knew when I first met him,” adds caddie Mike Hicks, who worked for Stewart from 1988 through Stewart’s death in the fall of 1999. “He was quite a man.”

That evolution of Payne Stewart is perhaps best illustrated in the story of the divots of Olympic 1998 and Pinehurst 1999.

Stewart enjoyed a four-shot lead to begin the final day of the ’98 Open in San Francisco, but he was two-over on the front nine and his lead had shrunk to two shots over Lee Janzen by the time he reached the tee of the par-four 12th hole. Stewart hit a good drive but encountered a bad break—his ball landed in a divot made earlier in the week and subsequently filled with sand and tamped down by course maintenance workers.

Divots are routinely treated with sand, sometimes mixed with some topsoil, to hasten the grass growth. But elite golfers would actually rather play from a bare divot because they know exactly how hard the surface is beneath the ball. With sand, it’s hard to tell, and Stewart referred to these divots as “fairway bunkers.”

Stewart and his caddie took a little extra time to examine the lie and contemplate the shot, then Stewart hit his approach from the divot into a greenside bunker. USGA official Tom Meeks had been clocking Stewart’s shot and told him as Stewart walked to the green that he had taken too long, that Stewart was being issued a slow-play warning. Stewart was stunned and aggravated. Unsettled by the divot and the warning, Stewart made two consecutive bogeys, fell out of the lead and opened the door for Janzen to rally from behind for the win.

Stewart had the wherewithal and emotional strength at that point in his career to walk off the 18th green and understand that how he reacted to the devastation—with class or acrimony—would prove if he could walk the walk.

He passed with flying colors, months later even sharing a light moment with Meeks over the misfortune of driving into the divot. Stewart said there should be some relief from driving into divots. Meeks suggested Stewart practice hitting shots from them. Meeks later learned that when Greg Norman had suggested at a PGA Tour players meeting that golfers get relief from sand-filled divots, Stewart had spoken up against the idea, saying then they should learn to play from them.

The next June at Pinehurst, each day Stewart practiced hitting shots from divots on the practice range.

“Lo and behold, he drove into four sand divots that week,” says Hicks. “Twice it happened on the fifth hole, and he made par both times. That will always stick out in my mind—that he had the vision to prepare for instances like that.”

Stewart also had the wherewithal to realize there was an integral part of the game of golf at play here—luck. Bill Coore, who with partner Ben Crenshaw directed the restoration of Pinehurst No. 2 from 2010-11, spent considerable time musing during the process that golfers today demand perfect conditions, and that was never part of the original soul of the game.

“Lo and behold, (in 1999 at Pinehurst) he drove into four sand divots that week. Twice it happened on the fifth hole, and he made par both times. That will always stick out in my mind—that he had the vision to prepare for instances like that.”

Mike Hicks, Payne Stewart’s Caddie

Coore tells of Harry Colt, the club secretary at Sunningdale Golf Club in England, writing a letter to the membership in the mid-1920s.

“I am very concerned about the condition of the golf course,” Colt said. “The fairways are so good that you have a perfect lie every time, and you’re taking away from the skill of the game.”

Coore elaborates on the point.

“The skill of the best players is tested by figuring out how to play shots out of the cuppy lies and odd lies you can find,” he says. “Those situations bring out the best in the best players. Sure, hitting a great shot off a perfect lie is part of the game. Dealing with bad luck and odd bounces is part of it as well.”

So if you have a snippet of bad luck and find your ball sitting in a sand-filled divot, heed the advice of Eric Alpenfels, head of the Pinehurst Golf Academy.

“Place the ball back slightly in your stance and choke down,” Alpenfels says. “The combination of ball position and hands lower on the shaft will help you hit the ball first versus the ground.”

And realize as Payne Stewart did in 1998 and ’99 that it’s all part of the game.

Lee Pace is a regular contributor to the Pinehurst Blog. He latest Pinehurst book, “The Golden Age of Pinehurst—The Rebirth of No. 2,” is available in all retail shops at Pinehurst.

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