The oversized bronze statue stands next to the 18th green, a semi-circle of bricks providing ground cover. Payne Stewart is punching the air in victory, having claimed the U.S. Open at Pinehurst's famed No. 2 course. That was 15 years ago, and in June, the U.S. Open will return to Pinehurst and the golf world will remember and celebrate Stewart's crowning achievement.
Stewart's victory pose, followed by his gracious consoling of the disappointed runner-up Phil Mickelson, are the lasting images of his career. His shocking death just a few months later makes that 1999 U.S. Open win seem all the more timeless -- and makes the statue all the more inspiring.
Approximately 220 miles to the south is Harbour Town Golf Links in Hilton Head, S.C. It's the annual site of the RBC Heritage, and -- like Pinehurst No. 2 -- one of the top golf courses in the country.
It's also the site of another Stewart victory, this one coming 10 years earlier when Stewart was struggling to close out tournaments. Prior to that week, if you had asked about his lasting image, the answer would have been the video of Stewart and his wife Tracey as they waded through wildflowers, walking off into the sunset after Stewart blew the 1985 HP Byron Nelson Classic. He was the perennial runner-up, the guy who couldn't get the job done on Sunday afternoon.
But that all changed 25 years ago. Stewart won the 1989 RBC Heritage, turned around his career, altered his reputation and started his march toward the World Golf Hall of Fame.
"The win at the Heritage," recalled Mike Hicks, Stewart's longtime caddie, "was really the start of his career."
There is no statue of Stewart off the 18th green at Harbour Town. But without that victory, the statue of Stewart at Pinehurst may not exist.
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
The statue of 1999 U.S. Open winner Payne Stewart is on display at Pinehurst No. 2 in Pinehurst, N.C.
William Payne Stewart grew up in Missouri playing golf with his father, Bill, who was good enough to compete in the 1955 U.S. Open. After playing college golf at Southern Methodist University, Stewart failed to qualify for the PGA TOUR. So he played professionally wherever he could. He played in Asia for two years and won the 1981 India Open and ’81 Indonesia Open.
In Malaysia that year, he met his future wife: Tracey Ferguson, who hailed from Australia. Stewart made it through the 1981 Spring Q-School and quickly became one of the most recognizable TOUR players of his generation.
Stewart had style. He wore knickers, bright colors and brass-toed golf shoes. His look was loud, and his swing was sweet. Graceful and powerful, his tee shots started out low and climbed into the sky like an F-16.It was the kind of soaring ball flight persimmon drivers and balata balls could produce if struck just right.
It was a different game back then; the best players wanted as much spin as possible. You could even hear Stewart’s golf ball spinning through the air.
Stewart picked up his first PGA TOUR victory in just his second season. A few months after winning the 1982 Magnolia Classic (an unofficial event opposite the Masters), he carded a final-round 63 to win the 1982 John Deere Classic by two shots.
The next season, Stewart shot four rounds in the 60s to beat runner-up Nick Faldo at the 1983 Walt Disney World Golf Classic. Stewart finished the 1983 season 25th on the money list.
He continued to play well for the next couple of years, but, as his fame grew courtesy of his flash and finishes, he developed a reputation for being a player who didn’t close. He won just once over the next five years (1987 Arnold Palmer Invitational).
Sure, he cranked out top 10s, including 16 in 1986 and 12 in ‘88. He was a money-making machine, finishing among the top 25 on the money list during that time, including third place in 1986. He was No. 1 on TOUR in the All-Around statistical category in 1988.
But he wasn't winning.
He had chances at three separate major championships, but struggled down the stretch. He lost all four of his PGA TOUR playoff appearances (to Peter Jacobsen, Bob Eastwood, Dan Pohl and Phil Blackmar).
Worse, he developed a reputation as a player who couldn’t win. Caddies started to call him “Avis.” For those who don't remember, the rental car company once featured a tongue-in-cheek ad campaign embracing its position in the rental car industry. The tagline? “We’re No. 2.”
Jacobsen, one of Stewart’s best friends on TOUR, empathized with Stewart’s struggles to find the winner’s circle.
“There are plateaus in everyone’s career,” he said. “And you start to think: ‘Is this it? I’m only 25 years old or 30 years old. Is this the best I’m going to get?’
"Payne had that perseverance and that fight. He fought as hard as anyone to shake that label ‘Avis.’”
Payne Stewart after his loss at the 1985 Byron Nelson
Payne Stewart after his loss at the 1985 Byron Nelson
The fight began in earnest when Stewart put together a team that had a tremendously positive impact on his game and career.
In the spring of 1988, Stewart hired Hicks as his caddie. Then he started talking regularly with Dr. Richard (Dick) Coop, who was one of the pioneers in the burgeoning field of sports psychology. The final piece of the puzzle was adding Chuck Cook, a renowned Dallas instructor, as his swing coach.
Stewart was taking steps to become a better closer. He didn't want to be called "Avis."
“It was bothering him,” Dr. Coop said, “but he wouldn’t let anybody know it. And it was fair enough because he had names for the caddies, too.”
Even so ...
“That stung,” Jacobsen said. “Second is better than third.”
When Hicks began looping for Stewart, it was only on a trial basis for the first month. The early results were encouraging.
"We top 10’d it four straight weeks," Hicks said. "And that’s right when he started working with Dr. Coop. And after a short period of time with Dick, he took off.
"That’s when he started winning.”
Stewart had momentum heading into the 1989 RBC Heritage. In nine starts that season, he posted three top-5 finishes. Still, he hadn't played Harbour Town in five years, and had made just two previous starts there, a missed cut in 1983 followed by a tie for 48th the following year. Only one of his first six rounds there had been under par.
But that week, it all started to come together over Pete Dye’s innovative design.
Stewart opened with a 65 to tie Kenny Perry for the lead. When they both shot 67 on Friday, they stretched their lead from two shots to three. Paired together on Saturday, they played just 11 holes that day due to a rain delay. Forced to play the last seven holes of their third round on Sunday, Stewart posted another 67 to Perry’s 70.
Finally, Stewart -- with a three-shot lead and five shots clear of third-place Mark McCumber -- was poised for the much-needed victory.
He had been here before, though, and couldn't hang on. In fact, he had blown a three-shot lead with one hole to play at the Byron Nelson in 1985. He double-bogeyed the last hole while Bob Eastwood birdied it, forcing a playoff. Stewart then double-bogeyed the first playoff hole before walking off dejectedly in the distance.
With 18 holes to play and his back aching due to the extended play on Sunday, now he had to seal the deal.
Recap: 1989 MCI Heritage
Recap: 1989 MCI Heritage
Looking back, Dr. Coop doesn’t think Stewart’s improved performance was an accident.
“I think that was one of the first places he committed to doing something more structured rather than just playing by feel," he said. "He was better with his pre-shot routine, using his intermediate target fairly religiously, and he had a game plan for the whole round. Those things sound simple today, but, for him, those things were not simple.
"Those things were like a rope around his neck because he did not like structure. That was kind of the ‘buying in’ time that I saw during that tournament. He bought in early that week to ‘structure plus feel.’”
Added Hicks: “He was flawless that week. He hit it great. He made putts. We shot 16 under which was the tournament record.”
Stewart shot a 69 in that final round, his fourth consecutive round in the 60s, to win by five shots and tie another tournament record for largest margin of victory. And this was no fluke win or against lesser competition. Other than Perry, the names behind Stewart on the final leaderboard -- Fred Couples, Bernhard Langer and Lanny Wadkins -- would all eventually be in the World Golf Hall of Fame.
"When he won The Heritage, it kind of kicked it all off for him,” Jacobsen said. "When he won at Sea Pines, it set him apart as a player. That golf course is so demanding. He became a force to be reckoned with.
"He was no longer Avis.”
It was Stewart's fourth TOUR win, but this one felt different. He seemed different.
“That win really pushed him over the top, confidence-wise," Hicks said.
Stewart went on a roll. He nearly won The Memorial and Buick Open. Then at the PGA Championship at Kemper Lakes in August, Stewart fought back from an opening 74 with three consecutive rounds in the 60s. With four birdies on his last six holes, he chased down the leader, Mike Reid.
When Reid struggled coming home, Stewart won his first major championship.
Recalled Hicks: “He shot 31 on the last nine holes to get into position. Obviously, Reid kind of messed up coming in, but (Stewart) still posted the score. And that happens a lot of times -- especially when you’re trying to win your first major like Mike was -- someone posts a score, and it’s hard to handle it.”
Stewart had now won twice in one season for the first time in his career. He finished second on the money list and surpassed the $1 million mark for the first time in a season. He won the ’89 Byron Nelson Award for lowest scoring average on TOUR.
And he did not slow down.
Back at Harbour Town in 1990, he became the first player in tournament history to successfully defend his title. This is no small accomplishment; the roster of RBC Heritage champions reads like a Who’s Who in golf history. In each of the tournament’s first 23 years, its winners had either already won a major championship or would finish their career with a major.
The ’90 RBC Heritage victory was also significant because it was his first win in a playoff; he beat Steve Jones and Larry Mize in sudden death. Two weeks later, he won the rain-shortened Byron Nelson Classic in front of his SMU friends in Dallas, ridding himself of the demons from five years earlier. He finished the ’90 season third on the money list.
But the following season, Stewart was slowed down by a nerve problem in his neck. He missed 10 consecutive weeks on TOUR in the winter and spring, including the Masters.
In addition to Stewart’s physical health issues, Dr. Coop was concerned about his psyche.
“With him, you had to really look closely," he said. "He hid a lot of his emotions. I think the thing with him was getting too confident or not getting confident enough. It was always a balancing act. There was a yin and yang always going back and forth with him. He would get too high or too low pretty fast.
"Trying to find that middle point was the hardest thing with him. And he would tell you that was the hardest thing for him to do, too.”
Not surprisingly, Stewart chose Harbour Town for his return to action in 1991. The Pete Dye design demands so much out of a player: work the ball both ways off the tee into tight doglegs; hit crisp iron shots into the proper pocket on the greens; and get up and down from some awkward spots if – when – you miss the greens.
The unique challenge seemed to bring out the best in Stewart. He finished tied for fourth at the RBC Heritage, regaining his confidence and reviving his season. The U.S. Open at Hazeltine National was just a few weeks away.
Payne Stewart, always a fan favorite, won 11 times on the PGA TOUR, which included three major championships.
As meticulous as Stewart was with his clothes, he was just as precise with his game; his ability to hit fairways and greens, not to mention his sharpened focus around the course, made him a threat at several U.S. Opens. In brutal conditions at Hazeltine, Stewart went head-to-head in an 18-hole playoff with former U.S. Open champion Scott Simpson.
“That ’91 U.S. Open had major storms and lots of rain early in the week,” Hicks said. “But then the wind blew, the course dried out, and by that Monday for the playoff, the course was really out of control. They both played poorly.”
Simpson held a two-stroke lead after 16 holes, but Stewart fought back to win by two shots (75 to 77). The PGA champ was now a U.S. Open champion, too.
In the first 217 PGA TOUR tournaments of his career, Stewart had won three times. In the 54 tournaments from the 1989 RBC Heritage through the 1991 U.S. Open, he won five times, including two major championships.
The metamorphosis was complete; Stewart had grown from a good player to a great player.
"He was pretty proud of himself after that second major," Dr. Coop said. "And rightfully so.”
The sky now seemed the limit, but things don’t always work out in golf ... or in life. Stewart’s career hit a plateau again when he chased the money and changed equipment.
“If he hadn’t switched equipment companies for five years ... there’s no telling what he would have done,” Hicks said.
Stewart added only one more victory (1995 Shell Houston Open) by the time those equipment deals expired at the end of 1998. The following season, he went back to the basics.
Remembered Hicks: “In ‘99, I went to Edwin Watts and picked out the bag I wanted to carry. There was no ball contract. No club contract. So Payne was playing everything he wanted to play. Then we win Pebble and end up losing in a playoff at Hilton Head. So he was on his game.”
Two months later at Pinehurst No. 2, Stewart held off Mickelson, Tiger Woods and Vijay Singh with clutch shot after clutch shot on 16, 17 and 18. In the crucible of championship pressure, the player who once couldn’t win anything won his third major.
At the end of the 1999 season, Stewart had 11 TOUR titles, including three major championships. He was third on the all-time PGA TOUR money list, behind only Greg Norman and Davis Love III. He could also boast of professional victories in Asia, Africa and Europe.
He had also represented the United States on five Ryder Cup teams, the last one at Brookline where the U.S. had produced a stirring and emotional comeback. With the Cup already clinched, Stewart conceded his match to Colin Montgomerie, a gesture of sportsmanship during a week that was sometimes contentious.
A month later, on Oct. 25, 1999, he boarded a Learjet in Orlando, Fla., that would take him to Dallas, where he was involved in discussions to build a home course for his alma mater, SMU. He would then travel to Houston for the season-ending TOUR Championship by Coca-Cola. If life is a series of peaks and valleys, Stewart was on top of the mountain, but he wasn't satisfied. There was more to achieve.
“I think people have forgotten how good he was,” Dr. Coop said. “We talked the night before he got on that plane. We were trying to find the time to get started on the next year. And he had goals higher than even his best year. I think he was ready to take off.”
The plane never landed. The cabin suffered a loss of pressure, killing the two pilots and its four passengers. Stewart was 42.
A year later, The Southern Company worked with the PGA TOUR to create the Payne Stewart Award, presented annually to the player who best exemplifies the values of character, charity and sportsmanship. The winners have all distinguished themselves through their respect for the game, the TOUR's tradition of charity and their ability to make a positive difference in the lives of others.
There have been 16 Payne Stewart Award winners. It’s no coincidence that seven of them are in the Hall of Fame and five have won the RBC Heritage. Like Stewart, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson and Nick Price achieved both.
The award honors Stewart and his memory. So does that statue at Pinehurst. Stewart was a good player who turned himself into a great champion, a three-time major winner.
Let's not forget where that transformation started. When you're watching the RBC Heritage this week, let your mind drift back to 25 years ago when one of golf's most colorful figures rid himself of a troubling label and flipped the switch on his Hall of Fame career.