How tragic Payne Stewart came to distill the Cup spirit
First published in The Telegraph on the 20th July 2016.
Payne Stewart was such a huge figure in the Ryder Cup, his memory is invoked during a match regardless. But at Hazeltine this year his name and legend will have special resonance.
It was at the Minnesota course where he won his first US Open 25 years ago and it is there where a bridge is named in his honour. The club unveiled the commemoration in 2001, two years after Stewart was killed in a plane accident. It is worth recalling the events of that week in 1991, if only because it exemplified the battling, no-quit style which exemplified Stewart and made him such a Ryder Cup stalwart.
In a torrid duel with compatriot Scott Simpson, Stewart twice came back from a two-shot deficit with three holes remaining; first in the final round to force an 18-hole play-off and then in that Monday shoot-out. The five-footer for victory was nerves personified and what made his triumph all the more remarkable was that he did so wearing a brace under his trademark colourful outfit, complete with its knickerbocker plus-fours and flat-brimmed hat.
Stewart was suffering with a back complaint all week, but heart got him through and gave him the validation he needed. “I’d won my first major at the [US] PGA in 1989, although people claimed I backed into it,” Stewart said. “I didn’t back into this one. I played my ass off and never gave up.”
There was one time he did give up, however - although he did so with consummate class. His actions in the “Bear Pit” of Brookline at the 1999 match are still talked about and have come to sum up what the Ryder Cup should be about.
Earlier on his career, Stewart was not entirely liked in the Europe team room. Famously, he once suggested that they should be caddying for the US team and not playing against them. But by 1999 he was admired by the opposition who had become used to Stewart joining them in the after-match celebrations and providing the entertainment with his harmonica.
At Boston, the harmony was shattered when the galleries turned on the Europeans, in particular, Colin Montgomerie. Stewart, who had won the US Open that year, had heard enough and on the 18th green he picked up the Scotsman’s ball and conceded the match out of courtesy.
“Colin didn’t deserve to have to stand over this putt and try to 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 in the gallery; 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 it’s not life and death. Some of our fans were over the top.”
“For sure, I would be a very emotional Ryder Cup captain. A very hands-on captain.”
That was the fifth and last Ryder Cup Stewart was to play in, having only been on the losing side once. Within a month he was dead.
The cabin in a charter LearJet lost pressure and all on board succumbed to hypoxia, a condition in which the body is deprived of adequate oxygen supply. On auto-pilot, the plane crashed in a field in South Dakota when it ran out of fuel. Stewart’s agents Robert Fraley and Van Ardan, and pilots Michael Kling and Stephanie Bellegarrigue, along with Bruce Borland, a golf course architect, also perished.
Tracey Stewart and her children lost a husband and father that day, while the game of golf lost a three-time major champion. The Ryder Cup lost one of its great characters, a man who would probably have enjoyed at least one last match as a player and then, almost certainly, would have become the US captain.
“For sure, I would be a very emotional Ryder Cup captain. A very hands-on captain,” Stewart predicted shortly before his death. “But in the end it’s still a game of golf and if, at the end of the day, you can’t shake hands and still be friends then you’ve missed the point. It you can’t laugh at yourself, then how can you laugh at anybody else?”