A 40-drive salute to defending champ


PEBBLE BEACH, Calif.-Nearly eight months after his tragic death, Payne Stewart was remembered here yesterday in a touching 35-minute tribute that ended with 40 of his peers hitting golf balls from near the 18th green at Pebble Beach into Stillwater Cove.

Stewart, who died last Oct. 25 in a private plane crash at age 42, becomes the first U.S. Open champion in 51 years not to defend his title when the tournament begins today. Ben Hogan couldn't defend his title in 1951 because of injuries suffered in a near-fatal car accident.

"I don't see how you possibly forget Payne Stewart," former PGA champion Paul Azinger told a crowd of around 1500 who had gathered for the early morning ceremony. "If golf is an art, Payne Stewart was its color."

Pausing several times to compose himself, Azinger said, "I challenge you not to forget Payne, not just the golfer, but the person."

Stewart's widow, Tracey, said that her husband's struggles ultimately proved as important as his triumphs. His dramatic victory in last year's Open at Pinehurst, as well as his win a few months earlier in the Pebble Beach AT&T;, had jump-started a sagging career.

"He tried to turn his losses into learning experiences," she said. "If he were here, I believe he'd say, 'Don't give up. Don't ever lose hope.' "

Stewart was on his way to last year's Tour Championship in Houston when the plane he was flying in malfunctioned shortly after takeoff and crashed thousands of miles away. Five others also died in the crash.

As Azinger had done at Stewart's memorial service last fall, Chris Perry wore plus-fours in Stewart's honor. Stewart was known as much for his wardrobe, in particular the plus-fours and cap, as he was for a game that included a picture-perfect swing.

"We're never going to forget him," Perry said. "None of us will. I was a conservative player earlier in my career and he always told me, 'Don't play scared. Always go after it.' "

The tribute ended when Larry Moody, who conducts a regular Bible study class on the PGA Tour, told the golfers assembled, 'Gentleman, on my command. Ready. Aim. Fire.' With that a group of 21 players hit first, followed by a group of 19.

Among those noticeable by their absence yesterday was Tiger Woods and Mark O'Meara, who lived near Stewart in Orlando, Fla., as well as Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Tom Watson.

Woods was reportedly walking the course with his caddy at the time of the tribute.

"It's not fair to single out one guy," said Bobby Clampett, the former Tour player turned television who made the field here. "A lot of players weren't here. It's a personal choice."

The tribute left those who participated with mixed emotions.

"It was great, but it still wasn't enough," said former PGA champion Hal Sutton. "It was the best we could do. I spent 19 years with Payne Stewart. That doesn't go away."

Said former British Open champion Tom Lehman: "I think you're proud to be a part of this. You feel good about doing something to honor a friend. This was something unique."

Said Lehman: "We kind of felt a little bit of [closure at the Tour Championship, but the memories and emotions are pretty close to the surface."

New eyes, new putter

Vijay Singh has been known to change putters like most people change, uh, socks, but the sight of the reigning Masters champion practicing with a long putter has raised some eyebrows here.

While it measures 45 inches, Singh said, "I really don't call it a long putter because I don't do anything different than what I did with the other putter."

This will mark the second tournament in which Singh has used the putter, having finished tied for 24th last week at the Buick Classic. Singh has not been in the top 10 since a tie for third at the MCI Classic a week after Augusta.

Singh has also had laser vision surgery since winning the Masters.

Elkington withdraws

Former PGA champion Steve Elkington withdrew yesterday because of a sinus condition. It marked the third time this year and the second straight week that Elkington, whose career has been affected by various medical problems, was forced to pull out of a tournament. Elkington also withdrew from last year's PGA Championship because his caddie became ill.

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