A Tragedy 25 Years Later


There’s more than a touch of nostalgia with the return this year of the U.S. Open to Pinehurst Resort Course No. 2, the scene of Payne Stewart’s dramatic win 25 years ago over Phil Mickelson.

Four months later Stewart, the charismatic winner of two Opens and a PGA Championship, was killed with five others when the Learjet 35, of which he was part owner, crashed into a field near Mina, South Dakota. Unknown to the passengers shortly after takeoff from Orlando, Fla., a cabin leak depressurized the plane which continued in a 1,600-mile four-hour automatic pilot flight until fuel was exhausted.

The golf world reacted with sorrow and incredulousness still felt today.

PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem expressing the feelings of many. “It’s difficult to express our sense of shock and sadness over the death of Payne Stewart. This is a tremendous loss for the entire golfing community and all of sports. Payne was a great champion and a devoted husband and father.”

Tiger Woods, Stewart’s neighbor in Isleworth the exclusive residential community near Orlando who also travels exclusively by private jet was quoted, “It is shocking…a tragedy. I can’t even comprehend the scope of it. None of can right now. He was a close friend of mine. There is an enormous void and emptiness I feel right now.”

Stewart’s intensity and drive to win were legendary even though he sometimes needed to apologize for his words and antics, but golf fans loved him. His 11 PGA Tour wins, including his three major championships, were never easy and his intensity was always evident.

Personally, two things are clearly in my mind all these years later. Living not too far from Stewart I remember entering a local golf retail shop and seeing him sitting on the checkout counter swinging his legs like a little boy with the U.S. Open trophy next to him. His laughing and joking with the customers captivated all of us.

I also have a vivid memory of that fateful October 25, 1999. I was playing the Copperhead course at Innisbrook Resort in Palm Harbor, Fla. with the resort’s Director of Instruction, and we were just getting ready to hit our tee shots on the tough downhill par-3 eighth. One of his assistants came out in a cart and told us CNN had reported a plane with a professional golfer on board had crashed, but they hadn’t given the name.

My first thought was the crash involved another Orlando professional, Arnold Palmer, one of the first to pilot his own plane

Later in the 12th fairway while waiting to hit, the assistant came back with the news it was Payne Stewart saying his plane was on a flight from Orlando to Dallas and for some reason it flew north rather than west, finally running out of fuel over South Dakota.

We were stunned, my friend especially. He quietly said, “Payne was a good friend of mine. We roomed together back in ’81 when we were on the Asian Tour.”

Will we ever be able to see a golfer in knickers without thinking of Payne Stewart?

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