Editor's Note: The Payne Stewart Award is named for the 11-time winner on the PGA TOUR who died the week of the TOUR Championship by Coca-Cola in 1999. The award was created by the PGA TOUR policy board to perpetuate Stewart's memory and is presented annually at the TOUR Championship to a player sharing Stewart's many admirable traits.
In most sports, it would be called an uncharacteristic moment of grace and humility. In most sports, it would be almost unheard of since, in most sports, it's often more about choreographed end zone dances and creative handshakes at home plate than sportsmanship.
In golf, it's just called Sunday.
This particular Sunday back in 1999 at the Ryder Cup, Payne Stewart was going mano-a-mano with the Americans' favorite villain, Colin Montgomerie, in the final pairing of the day. The U.S. had come into Sunday trailing the Europeans by a seemingly insurmountable four points. They would have to nearly sweep the singles matches to win the Cup. And they did just that, topped by Justin Leonard's putt heard 'round the world in his match against Jose Maria Olazabal. It was the clincher (a half point) and created quite a party on the putting surface by the American players and their wives. It was a moment of joy to be sure, but also one that the Americans no doubt regret since Olazabal had yet to putt for the tie and the disruption was unbecoming for the game of golf.
That's what made Stewart's gesture on the 18th green in his match against Montgomerie all the more special. Montgomerie was looking at a tricky birdie putt to win the hole and clinch the match when Stewart suddenly reached down and scooped the ball off the green thus surrendering the victory. Montgomerie immediately began to applaud the move as did the fans still surrounding the green. The 1999 Ryder Cup will forever be known for Leonard's putt, Captain Ben Crenshaw's prediction of something special on Sunday and those ridiculously designed U.S. shirts. But Stewart's classy move showed the world why his character will be remembered before any of his major titles or natty fashion sense.
The Payne Stewart Award recipients all emulate that type of character, the type that makes golf such a unique and special sport. In what other sport do the participants call fouls on themselves? Can you imagine LeBron James calling traveling on himself? In what other sport do the participants keep each other's score and then sign their scorecards at the end just to make certain they ratify the results as truthful?
But golf and the people who play the sport always have been in a class by themselves. Players such as Jay Haas defined the word character during his professional career. A hotshot youth golfer who played on what may have been the country's best-ever college golf team at Wake Forest (his teammates were Curtis Strange and Bob Byman), Haas produced a career filled with top-10 finishes, nine PGA TOUR titles and 15 Champions Tour victories. Haas' character resonated around the country from his dealings with the media to his interaction with other players and fans. He not only won the Payne Stewart Award in 2004, but the following year he was awarded the Bob Jones Award, an honor tailored for players who displayed superior character for a long period of time.
Nick Price was another Bob Jones Award winner, an award named for the great champion Bobby Jones. Price won three majors, including back-to-back majors in 1994 (he won the U.S. Open and then British Open that season), and was the world's best player in the mid-1990s. The native Zimbabwean won the 2002 Payne Stewart Award not only for his winning ways on Sunday, but also because of the grace he often showed on and off the golf course.
Price's dedication to the game resulted in 50 professional wins, including 18 on the PGA TOUR. Before each season he would scribble in his diary the same words: Persistence, persistence, persistence. That persistence certainly paid off as Price will go down as one of the game's greatest champions.
Some might say Tom Watson's improbable run at the 2009 British Open at the age of 59 showed plenty of character. And it did. But the character the 2003 Stewart Award winner showed in helping a good friend out of a life of alcoholism was far more impressive. David Feherty, the popular CBS announcer, recently shared that story on his weekly interview show when talking with Watson and there wasn't a dry eye in the place.
It takes boatloads of character to dig deep when a major title seems just out of your grasp. For Tom Lehman, his 1996 British Open title tasted all the sweeter because of his painful near misses at the U.S. Open. He twice held 54-hole leads at the U.S. Open only to watch someone else hoist the hardware at the end. But last year's winner of the Payne Stewart Award owns the type of character that makes it impossible to root against him.
Hal Sutton exhibited a special type of character after the Ryder Cup team he captained lost handily to the Europeans. Sutton took plenty of criticism from the media after the loss as his pairings (especially his pairing of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson) were poked and prodded. But through it all, the Louisiana native answered their questions and never lost his cool.
Composure under fire. Compassion for your competitors. Character is what you do when no one else is looking. Payne Stewart made sure everyone would remember his character first.