Updated: Apr 17, 2019
Hal Sutton was in the locker room at Pinehurst, minding the television and a bit of a sore shoulder, when Payne Stewart made the putt that gutted Phil Mickelson on the seventy-second green of the '99 U.S Open. Sutton had been paying close attention all week to Stewart's comportment on the No. 2 course, a beguiling Donald Ross classic in the sandhills of North Carolina. He'd seen a different man. Stewart seemed to move through space with austerity and grace, a machine with no faulty parts.
When he watched the putt fall, Sutton thought: "Maturity won this tournament."
It was maturity, in the form of curious restraint. Stewart was 42 that June, and he was confronting difficult and inevitable truths. He couldn't move the golf ball like Mickelson, Tiger Woods, Sergio Garcia, David Duval or the other young players rising to dominance on the PGA Tour. He couldn't coil like they coiled, fire like they fired, release like they released. But he could decide, when he faced a campy lie in the right rough after a drifting drive, to favor discretion over recklessness. And that, as Hal Sutton knew, was what won the 99th U.S. Open.
But it wasn't just one shot. It was all 279. It was Stewart in full control of everything that him wonderful and confounding in his seventeen years as a professional. He laid up with an eight-iron from the rough, floated his third to the green with a wedge, and now a famous statue depicting Stewart in a state of triumph stands nearby with an arm raised. Years before 1999, at the 1985 Byron Nelson and other tournaments, Stewart had fallen to rash temptation, to his own hubris. Had a younger Payne Stewart been playing the last hole of the '99 U.S. Open, he might've slashed a a longer club from the right rough, and then anything might've happened. He might've had the same putt, an 18-footer bending right at the end, that he made to win his second national championship. Or, more likely, he might've missed that domed Ross green, right, left, short or long, and had some kind of wackadoodle chip shot that had no chance of stopping until it rolled down the slope on the other side, possibly giving Mickelson the U.S. Open championship he still covets after six runner-up finishes (the first being, yes, in 1999).
Stewart didn't attempt that shot. He knew better. The fact that he was 42 years old wasn't his weakness in the summer of 1999. It was his elixir.
He was bold because he wasn't.
A lot of things won the '99 U.S. Open. Stewart prepared, with his swing coach Chuck Cook, as he had never prepared before. He made a plan. He committed to that plan. He worked hard on those shots around the greens that matter so much at a place like Pinehurst No. 2. He also exuded an emotional evenness that, like maturity and restraint, often eluded him on a golf course. He said later that he felt like he could win another U.S. Open, maybe two. I think he might've. The 2000 U.S. Open was going to Pebble Beach. Stewart played no course better than Pebble.
But then he boarded that Learjet in October, and now we'll never know. But we do know that he had choices for his 279th shot at the U.S. Open.
A gentleman named Ronald Crow, the USGA walking scorer on June 20, 1999, maintained the official account of Stewart's last round in a U.S. Open. Crow brought that relic (it ought to be in the World Golf Hall of Fame, if you ask me, which no one did) to the Pinehurst clubhouse for me to examine on my trip there in the fall of 2018. All 70 swings Stewart made that afternoon were derived from consideration of consequences, from aforethought. This was a round that could've been worse. Stewart played No. 2 with an indelible buoyancy, but he also played it with rare wisdom, the kind of clarity that was possible for him only in 1999, which is what makes the story of that season so resonant all these years on.
Sutton was right. And so was Stewart.