Remembering Payne Stewart 15 years after his tragic death

Payne Stewart
PGA of America
Payne Stewart at the 1999 Ryder Cup, one month before his death.
By T.J. Auclair, Senior Interactive Producer
PGA.com
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Series: Golf Buzz

Published: Friday, October 24, 2014 | 9:49 a.m.

It's hard to believe, but Saturday marks the 15th anniversary of the tragic passing of one of golf's most charismatic figures, Payne Stewart.

Stewart, an 11-time PGA Tour winner and three-time major champion, perished in a LearJet plane accident on Oct. 25, 1999, when the cabin lost pressure. All on board died of hypoxia -- a condition in which the body or a region of the body is deprived of adequate oxygen supply.

The plane, still on auto-pilot, crashed in a field in Mina, S.D., when it eventually ran out of fuel. Stewart's agents Robert Fraley and Van Ardan, and pilots Michael Kling and Stephanie Bellegarrigue, along with Bruce Borland, a highly regarded golf course architect with the Jack Nicklaus design company, also perished.

Stewart was 42 at the time of his death. He was just four months removed from what would prove to be his final major championship victory, the U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2, an incredible tournament where Stewart outlasted a then-majorless Phil Mickelson.

Watch highlights from that '99 U.S. Open here:

The plane incident happened just one month -- nearly to the day -- after Stewart was part of the U.S. Ryder Cup team that mounted a then record-setting, final day, come from behind victory in the 1999 matches at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass.

That was Stewart's last public appearance and, if ever there was an everlasting way to remember someone, that was it.

Stewart had always been known for two things -- his distinctive clothing (plus-fours and tam-o-shanter hat) and his intensity. Before those 1999 Ryder Cup matches, Stewart mixed things up a bit when he suggested that based on the strength of the European team -- or perceived lack thereof -- they should be caddying for the U.S. team not playing against them.

Harsh, no doubt, but that was Stewart's personality. He loved dishing it out, but also had a heart the size of the Wanamaker Trophy that he won in the 1989 PGA Championship.

In his Sunday singles match, Stewart displayed the type of sportsmanship he'll forever be remembered for. His opponent Colin Montgomerie was having a horrible week with the Boston galleries heckling his every move. With the Ryder Cup already secured late that afternoon for the Americans, Stewart picked up Montgomerie's golf ball on the 18th hole and conceded the match out of courtesy.

It was mature, it was classy, it was the right thing to do. It exemplified the person Payne Stewart had come to be.

During the 2014 U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2, Rickie Fowler paid homage to Stewart with his clothing for the first round:

The rememberance by Fowler proved to be good karma. He tied for second at the U.S. Open.

Justin Rose, the 2013 U.S. Open champ, also paid tribute to Stewart to Pinehurst back in June. After holing his final putt, Rose gave the famous fist in the air reaction Stewart gave when his winning putt dropped in 1999. You can see video of it here:

To understand just how long Stewart has been gone, here are a few things that have happened since he left us far too early:

- Tiger Woods had just two major championships on his resume before Stewart's passing. Woods has had 12 since.

- Phil Mickelson, major-less before Stewart's passing, has won five of them since.

- Woods (2000, 2002 and 2008) and Retief Goosen (2001, 2004) joined Stewart, Willie Anderson, Alex Smith, John McDermott, Walter Hagen, Bobby Jones, Gene Sarazen, Ralph Guldahl, Ben Hogan, Cary Middlecoff, Julius Boros, Billy Casper, Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Andy North, Hale Irwin, Curtis Strange, Ernie Els and Lee Janzen as the only winners of multiple U.S. Opens.

- Seven Ryder Cups have been played. The U.S. has gone 1-6 over that time, with the lone victory coming in 2008 at Valhalla, when Stewart's dear friend, Paul Azinger, was the U.S. captain.

- And, for the younger crowd, Twitter, Facebook, iPhones, iPods and blogs didn't even exist until well after 1999.

Stewart has been missed and will continue to be missed. Unfortunately, we'll never have the chance to see him captain a U.S. Ryder Cup team -- something that surely would have come to fruition.

Though he passed so young, Stewart left us with so many great on-course memories.

Even still, it's hard to believe it's been 15 years.

Follow T.J. Auclair on Twitter, @tjauclair.
 

T.J. Auclair is a Senior Interactive Producer for PGA.com and has covered professional golf since 1998, traveling to over 60 major championships. You can follow him on Twitter, @tjauclair.