All major wins should be equally celebrated. Four times each year, a golfer has a chance to produce a career-defining moment. It’s the most pressure, the most attention, the most drama, the most intensity, the most demanding on a golfer’s schedule.
So why are there degrees of success for those fortunate enough to have won more than once.
They exist, of course, because we like to rank things. It’s not enough that a golfer wins multiple majors. We have to also give them some order, so that one is better than two, two is better than three, and so on. It’s the backbone of many a sports conversation amongst friends.
So now we come to Payne Stewart. Among his 11 wins on the PGA TOUR are three major victories. Naturally, as with any multiple major winner, there is a ranking and a perspective that must follow.
The first win is always important because, hey, breakthrough major. For Stewart, that happened in the 1989 PGA Championship at Kemper Lakes outside Chicago. In his case, it was even more amazing because he started the final round six shots behind and three groups ahead of leader Mike Reid.
Stewart was still five strokes behind heading to the 16th hole but finished with the hot hand while Reid – nicknamed Radar thanks to his accuracy — dropped three shots in his final three holes. “The Russians must have been transmitting,” Reid said afterwards, the Cold War still in effect back then, “because my radar got zapped.”
Said Stewart in a Sports Illustrated story: “The last nine holes of a major, some really strange things happen. I just stood in that tent and said a little prayer.”
Stewart’s third major was, without much argument, his most emotional. It came at the 1999 U.S. Open at Pinehurst. Then 42 and wondering how many prime years remained, Stewart rolled in a 15-foot par putt on the 72nd hole to beat playing partner Phil Mickelson.
He celebrated by punching the air with his right hand while kicking out his right leg – an image turned statue at the Pinehurst Resort. Just as memorable, Stewart grabbed both sides of Mickelson’s face and consoled him by saying, “You’re going to be a father,” a reference to the impending birth of the Mickelsons’ first child.
Then, 128 days later, Stewart was killed in a tragic plane accident – making his win at Pinehurst even more poignant. As last chapters go, no one could’ve scripted it much like this, the biggest high and saddest low ever experienced. “A legend that was taken too early,” said his former Ryder Cup partner Davis Love III a few days later.
So that brings us to Stewart’s major victory sandwiched between his first and last. It’s the 1991 U.S. Open, and here we are, 30 years later. Like the middle child, it gets overlooked, forced to fight for attention against the oldest sibling and the baby. Like an Oreo cookie, it’s the soft center bookended by the more delicious edges. As the song goes, “Stuck in the middle with you.” As Orson Welles once said, “The enemy of society is middle class – and the enemy of life is middle age.”
Being the middle major in a career of three is a sure-fire way of being neglected. And yet Stewart’s performance at Hazeltine should not be shrugged off. The importance of it remains an integral part of his career, perhaps even the key to his place as a World Golf Hall of Famer.
OK, it doesn’t help matters that Stewart’s 1991 win concluded on a Monday, thanks to the 18-hole playoff format then utilized at the U.S. Open when leaders were tied after 72 holes. It was Stewart vs. Scott Simpson, who was seeking his second U.S. Open title, having won four years earlier.
The good news was that 30,000 fans showed up that Monday, an impressive number for a workday and a reflection of Minnesota’s underappreciated love of golf. A fifth day of golf on a demanding Open layout may have been too much, however.
The two players combined for 12 bogeys that Monday, with Stewart shooting a 75 to Simpson’s 77. As esteemed Los Angeles Times sports columnist Jim Murray wrote, the playoff “was not something you’d want to paint or write songs about. It probably set Open golf back about 50 years — which is where the USGA wants it. I have seen better golf in scrambles at public links.”
It probably never should’ve reached the point.
The day before, Simpson held a two-shot lead over Stewart going to the 16th hole in the final round. But he bogeyed that hole, then bogeyed the 18th after his drive found the rough. Unfortunately, the finishing holes were not done tormenting him.
In the playoff, Simpson once again held a two-shot lead going to the 16th and seemed in control, especially with Stewart having bogeyed the previous two holes. And once again, Simpson struggled at 16th. He three-putted for bogey while Stewart birdied it from 18 feet for the two-shot swing to tie the score. It was Stewart’s first birdie in 30 holes.
At the par-3 17th, broadcaster Dave Marr told the TV audience that water did not come into play. So of course, Simpson promptly splashed his 4-iron for another bogey. “A terrible shot,” he said. “I don’t know what went wrong there.” Stewart’s 5-iron to 12 feet set up a two-putt par to take a one-stroke lead.
Drama still remained. Stewart found the fairway bunker with his tee shot at 18. As he stood over the shot, he could hear the walkie-talkie of a tournament official. Specifically, the discussion was about setting up the pin on the first hole in preparation for a sudden-death playoff, since Stewart was in trouble.
Stewart backed off the shot to gather his thoughts. He knew what he had to do. “I told myself that if I was going to win, I had to step in there and hit the shot,” he said.
His 6-iron finished on the fringe. Simpson, meanwhile, was on his way to another bogey, so Stewart could breathe easy on his 4-footer for par. Still, he poured in the putt, thrust his right arm into the air, tossed the ball into the crowd and hugged his young daughter Chelsea, who was first to arrive on the green.
The knee-jerk reaction was that fortune had once again gifted Stewart a major title, just like some thought it had two years earlier at the PGA Championship. “The debate,” wrote the Minneapolis Star-Tribune in its round recap the next day, “will be whether Stewart won or Simpson lost, and both sides will be right.”
Even Simpson admitted the tournament was his to lose. “It’s disappointing to lose the U.S. Open two straight days,” he said. “I accept the loss. People will say I choked. People will say the ‘C’ word. I did give it away.”
But someone had to be there to take it. For the second time in three years, Stewart put himself in that position.
“It was a good show,” Stewart said. “It wasn’t always outstanding golf, but the course was very tough. It tested your patience, your fortitude. A lot of people are going to say I backed into winning the PGA. A lot of people are going to say I backed into this one. But I don’t feel I backed into this one. I played my ass off. …
“I’m on the receiving end again. I feel sorry for him, just as I feel sorry for Mike Reid. But there had to be a champion, and I’m glad it’s me.”
And that’s the key takeaway. Fate had finally turned for Stewart, who had suffered through some unusually tough near-misses earlier in his career, a time when people questioned his closing ability.
Just six years earlier at the AT&T Byron Nelson, Stewart had a three-shot lead heading to the final hole but ended up losing in a playoff. The video of Stewart and his wife Tracey walking back to their hotel room after the loss was heartbreaking.
But now he was eliminating those demons. The 1989 PGA win. Then redemption the next season in Dallas by winning the 1990 AT&T Byron Nelson. And now his second major victory, this time wearing red, white and blue in his national open.
It was the eighth PGA TOUR win of his career, and it might’ve been his most difficult, given that three months earlier he couldn’t even swing a club. He had injured his neck and was forced to wear a brace 24 hours a day for nearly six weeks.
Stewart himself did not worry that the injury was career-threatening. His wife wasn’t as convinced. “We were definitely concerned he might never play golf again,” Tracey Stewart told reporters in Minnesota.
Along with severe back problems that plagued him most of his career, Stewart had to decide between surgery to repair a herniated disc or lengthy layoff with long hours of rehab. He opted for the latter – and was back in time to win at Hazeltine.
Returning to play at a high level showed his physical toughness. Winning, however, showed his mental toughness. At Hazeltine, those two gritty elements – grit not necessarily being a word associated with the dapper-dressing Stewart in his plus-fours and driver cap – converged.
Stewart would no longer be the golfer that couldn’t get the job done. No one would ever again question his moxie, his will to win.
Perhaps without his success at Hazeltine, Stewart does not mature into the kind of golfer that wins a third major in his 40s. Knowing he had already gotten the job done once at the U.S. Open gave Stewart the kind of confidence to hold off the big names at Pinehurst.
Stewart was asked that Sunday in 1999 about his legacy with three major wins. “Where it puts me in the golf world is what I believe in myself,” he replied. “I’m a pretty good and pretty accomplished player, and nobody can ever take that away from me, no matter what’s written about me. So I think that I’ve accomplished a lot in my golf career.”
And while that middle major might not be the most memorable of the three, the people at Hazeltine have not forgotten his heroics.
Three years after his death, a 25-foot stone bridge allowing golfers to cross over a creek from the 16th tee box to the fairway was dedicated to Stewart. The ceremony took place at dawn on the Monday of the 2002 PGA Championship, a lone bagpiper playing “Amazing Grace” for the early-rising crowd.
It reminded Stewart’s friend and proud Minnesotan Tom Lehman of the bagpipes played three years earlier during a memorial held shortly after Stewart’s death.
“I know I can’t hear a bagpipe now without thinking of Payne Stewart,” Lehman said that day. “It makes me very emotional. He will be remembered for his sense of humor, his spirit, his style. He was a great champion and a great friend.”
In the end, when it comes to Payne Stewart’s legacy, those are the attributes that matter, the things we should focus on – and not some contrived ranking of how his three majors stack up against each other. In the end, they all mattered, each in its unique way.