7th June,2014

US Open......Pinehurst

~~Almost 15 years ago, Payne Stewart won the U.S. Open. Four months later he was killed in a tragic plane crash.
The unimaginable occurred on Jon Hoffman’s property, when a Learjet 35 plunged into the earth after an eerie, four-hour pilotless flight that had originated in Orlando, traveled north-by-northwest, before making its horrifying descent in northeast South Dakota. All six people aboard the plane — two crew members and four passengers, including two-time U.S. Open golf champion Payne Stewart — died in the crash.
This year on October 25th  will mark fifteen years since the surreal news played out on televisions, computer screens across USA and around the globe on CNN. I called immediately my long time friend  Mike Ferguson,Payne’s brother-in-law to tell me what the hell was happening. He told me very quickly on the phone that he is surrounded by all of Australia televisions and media people. I had to hang up for Mike to answer the media questions on the information he was receiving directly from Payne Stewart wife Tracey, his sister.Later that day Mike called me back to tell me what actually happened . It was on that last Monday of October when Stewart boarded the private plane — at Orlando International Airport. But 14 minutes after takeoff, approximately 37,000 feet above northwestern Florida, Jacksonville Air Traffic Control lost contact with the plane, setting off a chain of events that included three separate military responses by F-16 fighter jets. The National Transportation Safety Board released a 31-page report on the crash and investigators concluded that the probable cause was incapacitation of the flight crewmembers as a result of their failure to receive supplemental oxygen following a loss of cabin pressurization, for undetermined reasons.
Everyone remembers Payne’s clothes.
I used to ask Payne, What’s it like stopping at a shop on your way home? I’m sure people would see you in those knickers and be like, “What is this?” Payne would laugh when I asked him that. He was a fun-loving guy.
There was no denying Payne’s passion for golf and his competitiveness and success on the links during the two decades he played, but Payne made certain he would always leave an indelible mark on any tournament or round, even if he missed a cut or fell to the bottom of the leader board. He simply out dressed his competition.
The trademark plus fours, Tam O’shanter cap, the occasional pair of argyle socks pulled knee high or a matching sweater vest, Payne was a sartorial throwback to the class and dignity of the Ben Hogan era. One of my members Traian Aionitoaei got inspired by Payne Stewart dress code.
Payne also possessed a sweet, natural golf swing, and his game and his personality matured over the years.
My first impression of Payne in the 1980’s was that he was very much like any other professional player — he was good, skilled, but he had a lot to learn and he had to work a lot on his swing( “High Maintenance” ). Very few golfers are like Tiger Woods, who have that skill level right away. But Payne was always interested in learning and getting better.Not like many of us professionals from Australia playing on the Asian tour and chasing skirts.
Payne Stewart’s game did improve through the ’80s, after he spent time playing in Asia. That’s where we all became golfers. Asia is where we all got our PGA professional cards as I said before in one of my blog stories. Asia was also where Payne met his wife Tracey, a native Australian the sister of my best friend Mike Ferguson. They got married in Australia in 1981 and Tracey left her family and moved to USA.Payne and Tracey has two children, Chelsea and Aaron, and in 1989, Stewart won his first major — the PGA Championship — at Kemper Lakes in Illinois. Two years later, Stewart won his first U.S. Open at Hazeltine in Minnesota and seemed poised to dominate the Tour for years.
After his US Open win in 1991 his golf dropped off and went through a prolonged slump, his fun-loving nature at times supplanted by a prickly side, particularly with the media. He used to be a little more of a rascal, sarcastic at times.
 But the last two years of his life, he really changed. He was a lot softer, more gracious. A lot of that had to do with his commitment to religion. I know Tracey became more committed to religion and the kids were brought into that. I think it made Payne more patient. He felt like there were bigger things out there than golf tournaments.
After losing to Lee Janzen  the U.S. Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco in 1998 the year when I tried to get in the field but never made it. Payne rebounded in 1999 with one of the most memorable finishes in Open history, sinking a 15-foot putt on the 18th hole at Pinehurst No. 2 to beat Phil Mickelson by one stroke. That September, Payne played on the Ryder Cup team and helped propel the Americans to an emotional victory over the Europeans in Brookline. A little over a month later, Payne was dead at 42.
If it’s something big, that had an impact on my life(other than my wife giving birth to my son Nicholas), is that Payne Stewart son Aaron in 2004 has visited me at Club Pelican Golf Course in Australia to work with him on his golf swing and golf clubs. That was going to be a defining moment in our lives.Aaron never played golf when his father was a life.  Aaron Stewart, Payne’s 14-year-old son who now is following in his father’s footsteps. For me was a privilege and huge responsibility teaching Payne’s son. Aaron will be playing later college golf at Payne’s alma mater, Southern Methodist University, and hoping to become a PGA Tour regular golf player.Two years later in 2006 Aaron returned to Australia on his way to meet with his good friends in Melbourne, Australian tennis player Todd Woodbridge and golf professional Stuart Appleby, he stopped in Brisbane. He walked into my golf shop to my surprise and honestly I was delighted to see the kid again. He came to bring me some personal golf memorabilia from his father. The four golf shirts that Payne played in the U.S. Open, his father golf bracelet which I still have on my hand ever since and many other items including the full set of Top Flite’s with which his father won The 1989 US PGA Championship, Payne’s first Major tournament. He is a great kid and has a lot of respect, I was very happy. I knew that it was an effort for the kid to make one more stop in Brisbane from USA, as he was going to Melbourne. Like he told me; ”Australia is too far away Demi”. He also told me that his father long time coach Chuck Cook now works with him on his golf swing which made me very happy. I know how good and great Chuck Cook is as a coach. Chuck is on my list as one of the best golf coaches in the world.
Aaron Stewart was 10 years of age when his father pulled off the miraculous putt on the 18th hole 15 years ago in North Carolina. Aaron says he won’t be at Pinehurst in couple weeks, but he’ll be watching, Mickelson and the rest of the field, just like every year when he tunes in to this major tournament called the U.S. Open.
It’s a big thing because it’s the 15th year since his father won the U.S. Open, Aaron also will be keeping tabs on some of his Orlando neighbors who’ll be at Pinehurst in couple weeks, the same neighbors who have been helping him along with his game since he began playing golf with me at Club Pelican in Australia.Stuart Appleby is his next-door neighbor, Charles Howell, Tiger Woods, Lee Janzen — all those guys who are willing to help Aaron, show him a different shot and look at his swing. It’s pretty cool however they could never teach the kid my “Kangaroo Jack, Power-Fade”.
As for Aaron now, he wants to play tournaments during his summers, and hopefully have an opportunity to compete on the PGA Tour level, maybe even at the U.S. Open, which his father so famously conquered 15 years ago. If you want something bad enough and work hard enough, dreams come true. He is a pretty energetic person. He likes enjoying life. He learned that from his dad. Payne loved life, loved having a good time with people. I know that Aaron learned from his father to always treat people with respect and laugh whenever he can because.......
Life is too short.
 

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