For the first six years of his professional golf career, Payne Stewart always had a justification for losing: making money. By the time he was 27, he had won more than a $1 million on the PGA Tour and only a couple of minor tournaments.
But something happened to change Stewart's perspective. Leading the 1986 United States Open at Shinnecock Hills by a shot with five holes to play, Stewart faded to sixth. He took home a sizable paycheck. Suddenly, it wasn't enough.
"When you come out here, the money can be blinding," he said a year later. "But the thing I want to do is win golf tournaments, especially major golf tournaments. That's what this game is all about."
Stewart, 34, has now done it twice. He won his first major when Mike Reid bogeyed two of the last three holes in the 1989 PGA Championship. He won his second Monday, when Scott Simpson bogeyed the last holes at Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska, Minn.
The victory, the eighth in his 10-year career, proved that he is fully recovered from an early-season neck injury that forced him off the tour for more than two months.
"Growing up as a kid -- you could call it arrogance or cockiness -- I thought I was going to be a great golfer, a champion," said Stewart, the only American to win two majors in the past nine years. "My ultimate goal is to win the Grand Slam over my career. I'm halfway there."
The victory also allowed Stewart to improve an image of a player who wilted under pressure and was insensitive to others. Dr. Richard Coop, a sports psychologist in Chapel Hill, N.C., helped Stewart improve the first deficiency. Maturity, and his own disappointments, enabled him to see the other.
Where he once let a bad putt and Raymond Floyd get to him in the final round of the 1986 Open, Stewart hung in there Monday until a birdie at 16 helped him climb back in the hunt. Where he once high-fived a disconsolate Reid coming off the course at the 1989 PGA, he had only words of consolation for Simpson.
"I think we found that he was trying too hard to win," Coop, who teaches educational psychology and human behavior at the University of North Carolina, said yesterday from Chapel Hill. "It took away from his natural abilities. He was always trying to strangle the golf course instead of letting the course come to him."
Part of that involved handling a potentially serious disk problem in his neck earlier this season. Stewart had to work hard rehabilitating his neck and regaining the strength in his shoulder.
"Three months ago, Payne couldn't lift a two-pound weight and couldn't come close to swinging a golf club," said his wife, Tracey.
Said Stewart: "Being out for 10 weeks opened my eyes about how much I missed the game. When I came back, I worked harder in physical therapy than I ever did on the practice tee."
It is an ongoing process. Stewart joked at the Open that he kicked his 2-year-old son, Aaron, out of his bed Wednesday night because the boy's mattress was firmer than the one he was sleeping on. But Stewart was receiving treatment as late as Monday morning.
Said Dr. Keith Ungar, a chiropractor who travels with Stewart: "Coming back from something like that so fast and winning this tournament istotally superb. I knew physically he'd be fine, but Payne's mental makeup has been the key all along."
What impressed Coop was the patience and persistence Stewart showed during the 18-hole playoff with Simpson Monday. Coop began working with Stewart three years ago, and Stewart had won four tournaments since their three-times-a-month sessions began. But the Open victory was different.
"I just spoke to his today, and I told him that he didn't win with
his natural game," said Coop, who reportedly might begin working with Greg Norman. "He's won tournaments before because of his ball-striking ability. This is the first time he's won because of his mental toughness."
While it's believed than an Open championship could mean as much as $5 million in corporate endorsements, Stewart isn't doing badly already. He has a lucrative deal with NFL Properties to wear its colors and logos on his plus-fours.
"I finally realized a couple of years ago that if I played well, and won some tournaments, that the money would take care of itself," said Stewart. "At the same time, this is a job and I have to take of my family. If I play up to the best of my potential, I'm going to be able to do that."