Today is the 15th anniversary of Payne Stewart’s death as the private plane he and five other people were in crashed in South Dakota after losing cabin pressure and flying for hours on auto-pilot. Payne was a son of Springfield, Missouri and Hickory Hills CC. His dad Bill was a passionate golfer won the Missouri Amateur in 1953 and ’57 and passed along the “golf gene” to his son. When Payne won the Amateur at Wolf Creek in 1979 at the ripe old age of 22 he and Bill stood alone as the only father and son to have won the Amateur. That record stood until 2006 when Ben Godwin won at Blue Hills CC in Kansas City and joined his dad Buddy as the only other father and son to win the Missouri Am.
Ironically, I’m reading a book right now in which the “change” in Payne Stewart is discussed by the book’s author, John Feinstein. I knew Payne had undergone a rather dramatic change in how he faced his public and even those closest to him–but not until today did I know the actual incident that triggered things.
From the book ONE ON ONE by Feinstein: ….1996 incident at the Masters when a father and son had asked him for an autograph while he was storming to his car after missing the cut. He not only refused but had yelled at the man, telling him he was breaking the rules by asking for an autograph. When he got into the car with his wife, Tracey, she had let him have it, pointing out that the man had not violated the rules, that autograph seeking on the parking lot side of the clubhouse was allowed, and how dare he yell like that in front of the man’s son when he was the one who had missed the cut–not the autograph seeker.
“You need help,” she had said finally. “I’m tired of having you embarass me this way.”
Payne sought counseling, took what he learned to heart, and almost overnight became one of the most thoughtful and caring professionals out on tour. He’d always been outgoing, extroverted, unfraid of the spotlight–witness the knickers and the distinctive dress. He still wielded a sharp knife when it came to interacting with his fellow professionals on Tour, but it was somehow not as mean-spirited, though still hilarious, and sometimes downright shocking in cutting to the heart of the matter. Who can forget, seconds after breaking Phil Mickelson’s heart with the winning putt at the open at Pinehurst, when he took Phil’s face in his hands and said something along the lines of , “You’re about to become a father. That’s way more important than this, and you’ll win the Open someday, too.”
Payne said this to Feinstein that day when he recalled the incident that brought about his transformation: “That’s the best thing about being a parent, isn’t it? Seeing your kids figure life out. It’s the thing I enjoy now more than anything else I do, watching my kids grow and figure things out. I just hope they figure things out a lot quicker than their old man did.”
Since 2000 the PGA has given the Payne Stewart Award to the golfer whose “values align with the character, charity and sportsmanship that Stewart showed.” The honoree in 2014 was Sir Nick Faldo, a man who we find has undergone his own transformation over the years.