This is a story about a golf ball
Updated: Jun 3, 2019
I committed a lot of rounds of golf with the old Titleist Tour Prestige, most of them on the stiff Bermudagrass greens of Memphis and the Mid-South. I used it only on the finest courses I played, special-occasion places like TPC Southwind or Kirkwood National, down in the kudzu alleys of Holly Springs, Mississippi. A course had to deserve that ball.
Rest her soul, the Prestige wouldn't deform like the Tour Balata did when its windings snapped, and the cover resisted those gaping tears caused by too much sand-wedge bounce, and not enough personal expertise, in the bunkers. I loved everything about the Prestige: the implication of its name, the brilliant red play number, the sticky grab around the hole. Except for the fact that it didn't go anywhere, even when I hit it as hard as I could.
Payne Stewart could make it go. He used it and the Titleist Tour Professional in 1999, his season of redemption and reckoning. See that one in the picture? It's a Prestige. After he won the U.S. Open that June at Pinehurst, Stewart fetched it from his bag, signed it and gave it to a USGA volunteer as a gesture of gratitude. It remains that volunteer's most cherished artifact from a sepia summer when a 42-year-old Stewart, using dated forged Mizuno blades and an elfin Titleist 975 driver and a ball that spun like a flywheel, rose above Tiger Woods, David Duval, Phil Mickelson and the rest of their emerging generation to become the latest player in his forties to win the national championship of golf. No one in his forties has done it since.
Brooks Koepka has won two of those Opens, but he's in his twenties, as you know, and the way he plays golf barely resembles the way Stewart did in his prime. That's a pretty big part of "The Last Stand of Payne Stewart" (we just completed copyedits and it'll be in galley form soon, with advance review copies in the mail by the end of this month). But more on that later. Even had he wanted to, Stewart could never have played golf the way Koepka plays golf. He didn't have the equipment, most notably the ball. Koepka plays the Titleist Pro V1x, a direct descendent of the Professional and the Prestige, but with four layers. The x and its progenitor, the Pro V1, would arrive on the PGA Tour in the fall of 2000, a year after Stewart had died. Billy Andrade and forty-six other players put the new ball in play at the Invensys Classic in October of that year; Andrade shot five rounds in the sixties, nipping Mickelson by a stroke. The Pro V1 was the ball that changed everything. It's now at the center of one of the biggest debates in golf. And 1999 is when the butterfly flapped its wings.
That season, the last stand of Payne Stewart and the other finesse and feel players of his era, was a blurry line of demarcation in the sport. Everything was changing: agronomy, technology, fitness, nutrition, instruction, club materials and, yes, the ball. We required these twenty years to really see that. The passage of time also allows us to appraise the season as the last one of true relevance for Stewart's generation, of those players born before 1960 who had learned golf with balata and persimmon and steel spikes. The story of Payne Stewart in 1999 is remarkable enough. But then you examine the forces preparing to converge. The technology. The fitness. The obsession, inspired by Woods, with sheer distance. Those are the forces that gave us, in 2019, the Brooks Koepka who bullied Bethpage Black with a golf ball that flies forever.
One of the most insightful pieces of journalism I read from the week of the 2019 PGA Championship was written by Ian O'Connor. Its title: "Brooks Koepka is the monster Tiger Woods created." It traces what we see on the PGA Tour -- the 300-yard carries, the wedges from 150 yards -- to the late Nineties. Woods won the '97 Masters playing a game with which Jack Nicklaus was unfamiliar. He won eight tournaments in 1999, including the PGA Championship at Medinah, the Tour Championship that Stewart was traveling to when he died and the World Golf Championship in Spain the week after Stewart's memorial service in Orlando. He was the golfer who changed everything. Here I am, monitoring him now on Golf Channel as he makes a run on Sunday at the Memorial. The gallery is alive and stirring. I want to finish this so I can go watch.
The story of 1999 isn't just a goodbye kiss to the shotmakers like Payne Stewart. It's the prologue to the story of the post-modern game, with the Koepkas of the world who swing massive titanium drivers at 122 miles an hour with chiseled arms and no fear of anything, consequences included. Woods is, by evolution, the reason for their being.