The accessible, relatable, redeemable Payne Stewart
Updated: Apr 17, 2019
Back on a sticky spring afternoon in 2018, a man named Jon Brendle took me to a little cemetery in Orlando, close to Bay Hill, in the hiss of traffic on a busy street. We drove right up to a plain, flat marker and a tattered flag stuck in the ground. The grass was cut. A Callaway golf ball lay in the dirt next to the slab. This is where friends such as Brendle, who lived next door to Stewart, come when they want to commune. These are the words they encounter when they do: "The Champion of Our Hearts."
A lot of golf people say they admired Stewart. I've heard that so many times since I started doing this book. I wonder how much they knew about him, how deeply they knew him beyond the handsome plus-fours and the flat cap and that elegant signature swing. This was never supposed to be a golf book purely. It was supposed to be a true story about a good but flawed man who'd made mistakes, atoned for them and grown from them. He'd used to be one way. Then he was another. And you can see that evolution in this watershed season, from his slump-snapping victory at Pebble Beach to his handshake with Colin Montgomerie at the Ryder Cup at Brookline. Stewart showed his change for all to see. That's why the 1999 season on the PGA Tour was so vividly ... vivid.
It's also about the nature of friendship among confident, competitive men. It's about the ways golf was changing. Players like Stewart and the other principals in the book (Paul Azinger, Tom Lehman, Mark O'Meara, Hal Sutton, who to a man gave me ample time and, I think, trust) were ceding the stage to a new generation fronted that summer by a reedy antagonist named Tiger Woods. Remember what Woods did in 2000, winning all those tournaments? We see the vestiges of that coronation today. The lean athletes who played the Honda Classic this past weekend bend golf courses to their toned, muscular, single-minded will. And it all started in earnest in 1999. The curtain rose that year and things were one way. They were different when it fell.
This is a comeback story on one level. It's a story of personal quest and restitution on another. It's big and it's small.
Stewart isn't the champion of our hearts because he played great golf. It's because he represented a certain, basic yearning in all of us. We all want to get better. We all want to evolve. And what makes this true story so incredibly interesting to me is its overbearing sense of the universal, because, when you look at it just right, in just the right light, at just the right angle, the story of Payne Stewart in 1999 isn't just his story. It's ours.