Golf’s Ryder Cup can generate many emotions in the golfing world. However, the 2016 Ryder Cup tournament will have beeen especially poignant. Payne Stewart was such a huge figure within the sport of golf and his loss is still keenly felt. At Hazeltine last year his name and resonance will have had added significance. It was here, in 1991, that Stewart won the first of his two U.S open victories. In 2001 Hazeltine National Golf Club named a bridge after Stewart just two years after he was killed in a plane crash. We should pause and reflect on those events that occurred 25 years ago in 1991. Stewart came back twice from a two-shot deficit against fellow American Scott Simpson with only three holes remaining and forced a Monday play-off in a storm affected weekend. What made Stewart’s win more special was the fact that he was wearing a back brace after suffering lower spinal problems all week.
Payne Stewart has many admirers in the golfing world and non-more so than the Scotsman, Colin Montgomery. The 1999 Ryder Cup took place in Brookline, Massachusetts, and the events during that tournament are still talked about today. Stewart’s actions on the final day are still discussed and come to sum up what the Ryder Cup is really about. The harmony of that year’s tournament was disrupted by the crowd’s behavior. The innate spirit of sport and golf was sorely tested when the galleries turned on the Europeans in general and Colin Montgomery in particular. Stewart, having won his second U.S open that year and in a rich vein of form, arrived on the 18th green alongside Montgomery who was receiving a barracking from the crowd. Payne Stewart had heard enough of that nonsense and he picked up Montgomery’s ball and conceded the match out of courtesy. “Colin didn’t deserve to have to stand over this put and try and make it,” Stewart later explained. “We had already won the Ryder Cup; that’s what it is, a team event. My individual statistics don’t mean anything in the Ryder Cup and I wasn’t going to put him through that. We had numerous instances of heckling; we had a couple of people removed. I appreciate the crowd that we had here, but it’s a golf event for pride and honour. You have to understand that’s it’s not life and death. Some of our fans were over the top.”
Colin Montgomery will always have mixed feelings about the 1999 Ryder Cup; however, he will never forget Stewart’s behaviour in that act of sportsmanship. “That was the kind of guy Payne was. He conceded the putt during the competition. I was having particular troubles with the crowd and he was brilliant with me even to the detriment of his own game all day. From the first tee he was brilliant. And at the end, when he conceded the putt, that showed you the class of the man.”
That was Stewart’s final Ryder Cup and his fifth in total. He was only on the losing side once. Within a month he was dead. Stewart’s agents Robert Fraley and Van Arden, pilots Michael Kling and Stephanie Bellegarrigue, along with Bruce Borland, a golf course architect, also succumbed in a plane crash. The chartered Learjet lost cabin pressure and all on board perished through hypoxia, a condition that occurs when the body is deprived of oxygen. The aircraft went into autopilot and flew north from Florida; it eventually ran out of fuel and crashed in a field in South Dakota.
The game of golf lost a great and colourful character, not only one respected worldwide for his ability and humility, but also one who stamped his own sartorial imprint on the game. No one wore Knickerbocker plus-fours and a flat cap with such grace and style. Much more important Tracy Stewart and her two children lost a husband and a father and surely their loss is more keenly felt than any sport.
It would be safe to say that Stewart would have continued to participate in subsequent Ryder Cups. It would equally be correct to admit that he would have captained the American team one day. Stewart, shortly before his death, predicted. “For sure, I would be a very emotional Ryder Cup captain. A very hands on captain. But in the end it’s still just a game of golf and if, at the end of the day, you can’t shake hands and still be friends then you have missed the point. If you cannot laugh at yourself, then how can you laugh at anybody else?”
Payne Stewart graced the game of golf with style, skill and more than a touch of charm. The three time major winner never lost sight of the fact that it is, after all, just a game. People of a certain age who may have attended last year’s Ryder Cup at Hazeltine will have paused and reflected on those events 25 years ago at the same venue. The U.S Open in 1991 was won by a very good golfer, a great sportsman and a thoroughly decent human being.