First peace, then tragedy; Stewart credited faith for turning his life, career around


For most of his 19-year career on the PGA Tour, Payne Stewart was known for his style rather than his substance. His behavior was admittedly more that of a churl than a champion. But last winter, he went through a major transformation.

He stopped drinking. He took his religious faith more seriously. He went from a player who fans -- and members of the media -- openly rooted against to one they pulled for, as happened when Stewart won his second U.S. Open in June.

It was his third major championship and the 11th victory of his career. Tragically, it was to be his last. Stewart died yesterday along with four others when the private jet he co-owned crashed near Mina, S.D.

Stewart was 42.

"It's difficult to express our sense of shock and sadness over the death of Payne Stewart," PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said in a statement. "This is a tremendous loss for the entire golf community and all of sports. He will always be remembered as a very special competitor and one who contributed enormously to the positive image of professional golf."

Criticized earlier in his career for being more concerned with making money than winning tournaments -- other players called him "Avis" for finishing second so many times -- Stewart's image as a player changed when he won the 1989 PGA Championship.

He backed it up two years later with his first U.S. Open title, beating Scott Simpson in an 18-hole playoff.

Yet it wasn't until a rainy Father's Day night earlier this year at the famed No. 2 course in Pinehurst, N.C. that Stewart reinvented himself as a player of historic proportions. His 15-foot birdie putt on the final hole of regulation to beat Phil Mickelson by a shot was the longest putt to win the Open.

He was still the guy in the retro-look knickers and tam-o'-shanter, a look that he once capitalized on with a lucrative endorsement contract from NFL Properties. He even looked stylish in the sleeveless rain jacket he wore, having cut off the arms that day to free up his swing.

But Stewart credited his victory to his strengthened religious belief.

"I'm proud of the fact that my faith in God is so much stronger and I'm so much more at peace with myself than I've ever been before in my life," he said that night, his face still wet from the rain, sweat and tears. "That's the reason I was able to gather myself and collect myself [before the putt]."

The victory came a year after Stewart had blown a four-shot lead on the last day of the 1998 Open, losing to Lee Janzen by a shot at the Olympic Club in San Francisco.

He became only the third player to win the Open the year after finishing second, following legends Bobby Jones and Jack Nicklaus.

Having broken a four-year winless drought this season at the AT&T; Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, the victory at Pinehurst helped catapult Stewart to a personal-best $2,077,950 in earnings, third on this year's money list behind Tiger Woods and David Duval. Stewart's career earnings of $11,737,000 ranked him third all-time.

His image wasn't without its contradictions, and his career not without its controversies.

Despite being known as something of a spoiled brat -- even his mother was quoted as saying she didn't like the person her famous son had become -- Stewart once donated the check he received for winning a tournament in 1987 to a Florida hospital in honor of his father, Bill.

Bill Stewart was an accomplished amateur golfer who had once competed in the U.S. Open. Before his death, Bill Stewart had seen his son win once as a pro -- at the 1982 Quad Cities Open. "My most cherished victory," Payne Stewart said last year of his first PGA Tour win.

Stewart's maturation was obvious to those who had followed his career. During the U.S. team's recent Ryder Cup victory outside Boston, he criticized the American fans who had unmercifully heckled Colin Montgomerie. With his team's victory assured, Stewart conceded a putt -- and the match -- to Montgomerie on the 18th hole.

"This game is about sportsmanship," Stewart said.

During what turned into the final tournament of his life, his mouth got him in trouble. Sitting out a rain delay at the National Car Rental Golf Classic in Orlando, Fla., Stewart commented on remarks made by golf analyst Peter Alliss by doing an imitation of a Chinese person. Stewart later apologized.

Stewart would miss the cut, spending the weekend at home with his wife, Tracey, and their two children, 14-year-old Chelsea and 10-year-old Aaron. He was flying from his home in Orlando to Texas, where he was scheduled to play in this week's Tour Championship in Houston.

"It will be a tough week for all the players, for myself, for the wives, for everyone," said Jeff Maggert, a teammate of Stewart's on this year's Ryder Cup team. "It's a tragic situation."

At the Champions Golf Club, where the Tour Championship begins Thursday, a flag flew at half-staff and a blue ribbon was draped at the parking spot reserved for Stewart. A spokesman for the U.S. Golf Association said yesterday that plans for a memorial before next year's Open at Pebble Beach were incomplete.

His fellow pros, many of whom travel from tournament to tournament in their own planes, were stunned by the news.

"There is an enormous void and emptiness I feel right now," Tiger Woods said.

Golfing legend Arnold Palmer, one of the first players to fly his own plane, called Stewart's death "one of the most terrible tragedies of modern-day golf."

The plane crash that killed Stewart was eerily reminiscent of the one involving golfer Tony Lema in 1966, two years after the player who became known as "Champagne Tony" had won the British Open at St. Andrews by five shots over Nicklaus.

In Stewart's case, he hoped that he would be able to handle winning his second Open title better than he had his first. He went nearly four years before winning again and fell from sixth on the money list in 1993 to 123rd in 1994 before gradually climbing into the top 10 again this year.

"It will be easier to understand the obligation that comes from being the United States Open champion," he said at Pinehurst. "It will be easier to understand that my family comes first."

Sadly, he will not find out. Nor will those who had started to root for him.

Career highlights

Won three major championships -- U.S. Open (1991 and 1999) and PGA Championship (1989).

Won 11 PGA Tour titles.

Member of five Ryder Cup teams (1987, 1989, 1991, 1993, 1999), with composite record of 8-2-2.

Won three Skins Games (1991-1993)

Set single-season PGA Tour record for money won without a victory ($535,389 in 1986).

Earned more than $11.7 million on PGA Tour.

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