Pinehurst Lookback: Stewart’s 1999 Victory Was a Beauty

Payne Stewart's putt to win the 1999 U.S. Open on the 18th hole at Pinehurst No. 2 is one of the iconic moments in the championship's history. (USGA/John Mummert)

Payne Stewart's putt to win the 1999 U.S. Open on the 18th hole at Pinehurst No. 2 is one of the iconic moments in the championship's history. (USGA/John Mummert)

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

By Dave Shedloski

“You beauty!”

As Payne Stewart punched the sky in euphoria, a second United States Open title secured with one final redemptive clutch putt, his two-word cry failed to rise above the din of a wildly cheering throng encircling the 18th green at Pinehurst Resort & Country Club’s Course No. 2. Stewart’s caddie, Mike Hicks, heard that familiar and wonderful exclamation, however, making his leap into his friend’s arms that much sweeter as they celebrated a moment that remains frozen in time.

Just one year after a bitter loss in the U.S. Open at The Olympic Club in San Francisco, Stewart captured the 99th U.S. Open with one of the most memorable finishes in the annals of the championship. Not only was his final stroke – a sure and true 18-foot par save that enabled him to edge Phil Mickelson by one shot – a thing of beauty, but so was his performance on the preceding two holes under arguably the most tormenting pressure of his career.

Hovering over his head as ominously as the gauzy mist that enveloped the North Carolina Sandhills that June afternoon was a cloud of disappointment that had shadowed Stewart for a full year. He had led after each of the first three rounds at Olympic only to be staggered by the remarkable rally of Lee Janzen, who authored the third-biggest comeback in U.S. Open history. Trailing by five strokes, Janzen won his second U.S. Open thanks to a final-round 68, while Stewart stumbled in with a 74.

So, naturally, when Stewart joined Mickelson for a share of the second-round lead at Pinehurst and then nosed ahead for the outright lead after 54 holes, the main storyline was clear. Either Stewart was going to cement his place in championship history or further his reputation as a player who had captured a couple of majors, including the 1991 U.S. Open, but had largely fallen short too often to overlook. When he arrived at Pinehurst, Stewart owned 25 second-place finishes on the PGA Tour compared to 10 wins.

“There was so much pressure on Payne that I can’t even put it into words. It was something we both could feel without saying anything. I can almost still feel it,” said Hicks, recalling that enervating final day, which would turn out to be Stewart’s last in the championship – he and five others were killed four months later in a Learjet crash after the plane’s cabin depressurized.

“The thing I remember most about that week was how much in a zone of concentration he was in,” said Hicks. “He struggled with that. But he was playing well, hitting it so much better than he did in ’98. He didn’t have control of his golf ball at Olympic, and it caught up to him that last day. In ’99, he was playing great golf. Still, he had a lot to overcome.”

So did Mickelson, who found himself with his best chance to capture his first major title and yet was uncertain he would be around to finish the task. The 1990 U.S. Amateur champion hadn’t arrived until late Tuesday night, choosing to stay at home in Scottsdale, Ariz., with his wife, Amy, as long as possible as she neared the end of a difficult pregnancy with the couple’s first child. In addition to his 14 clubs, Mickelson was armed with a pager, and he was prepared to leave Pinehurst should Amy alert him that she was going into labor.

“Phil had a lot of confidence going into that week, even though he got there late,” said Jim “Bones” Mackay, Mickelson’s longtime caddie. “I remember calling Phil on Tuesday and telling him 10 over might win. Of course, the rain [early Thursday morning] changed that. I walked with Fred [Couples] and Davis [Love III] in a practice round and they couldn’t make a par on any hole, because the course was so hard. But I can’t tell you how serious Phil was about the beeper. There was no scenario in which he wouldn’t leave if it went off.”

***

“Pressure is something that you have to learn to deal with,” Stewart told the media before the 1999 U.S. Open. “I think that comes over time spent out here putting yourself in that situation. I think I’m prepared for that now, being able to handle the situation when it presents itself.”

It didn’t take long for Stewart to have to back up his words.

Due to the steady rain that greeted players in the opening round, Pinehurst No. 2 briefly lost a bit of its bite. Twenty-three players broke par, but Pinehurst would yield just six more subpar rounds the rest of the championship, none better than 69. Four players opened with 67s to share the lead: Paul Goydos, Billy Mayfair, world No. 1 David Duval and Mickelson.

Stewart was among four players one shot behind with a 68, but when he added a second-round 69, he was right back on top, sharing the halfway lead at 3-under 137 with Mickelson and Duval, who each shot 70. Duval, who already had won four times and shot a 59 that season on his way to surpassing Tiger Woods as No. 1, was playing admirably despite sustaining second-degree burns on his right thumb and forefinger just days before the championship when he picked up a scalding-hot teapot.

Sharing third place two shots back at 139 were Woods, Hal Sutton and reigning PGA champion Vijay Singh.

The 36-hole cut fell at 7-over 147, with 68 players advancing. Among the early dismissals was four-time champion Jack Nicklaus, who thanks to a special exemption was playing in his 43rd consecutive U.S. Open, but his first major since undergoing hip replacement surgery in January.

With skies remaining overcast and winds picking up, Round 3 became an exercise in exertion. The scoring average soared to 75.97, and just one player, Steve Stricker, broke par – and he needed a 136-yard holeout for eagle from a fairway bunker for a 69. Tim Herron was next with a 70. Scores among the leaders: Sutton, 76; Duval, 75; Singh, 73; and Woods, 72. Mickelson, despite a 73, stood second at even-par 210 thanks to a birdie on the 18th.

Stewart was alone at the top, his 72 giving him a 1-under 209 total.

***

The final day did not start well for Stewart, who had recently found new meaning in Sundays after becoming a Christian. He wore on his wrist a bracelet with the letters “WWJD” – What Would Jesus Do? He had become accustomed to going to church regularly and attending Bible study while on the road.

“I think his kids had a lot to do with that,” said Hicks, who caddied for Stewart for 12 years and received from him a regular monthly salary instead of being paid by the event. “It was a big change. You could just tell that he was different. He had more patience with things and with people. But there wasn’t a big change in him on the golf course. One thing about Payne was that he always took responsibility for his game. If I called a wrong club, he still blamed himself. He would ‘fess up right away about mishits. I miss that honesty.”

Stewart faced a big problem as a cool mist settled over the course. He didn’t like the way the sleeves on his navy blue rain jacket were constricting his long, languid swing. After procuring scissors from the pro shop, he fashioned it into a makeshift vest.

As he sized up a 25-foot par putt on the 16th green, folks were wondering if maybe Stewart should have kept the scissors handy for the collar tightening around his neck. Stewart had just come off a sloppy bogey at the par-3 15th hole that dropped him one stroke behind Mickelson, and he easily could have been two back because Mickelson on the same hole had lipped out a 20-footer for birdie. Now Stewart looked certain of making another bogey. After an accurate drive into the fairway, Stewart had pulled his 2-iron approach into the pines. Luckily, the ball caromed back into play. But then he nervously thinned his chip shot into a position from which two putts would have been a decent result.

“You can’t even read the putt he made at 16, much less make it,” Hicks said. “The ball was down in a little depression, a little dip in the green that the ball had to come up out of and then it went back downhill. It broke two ways and if he hit it too hard it would go off the green.”

“It was as tough a putt as a guy could have,” Mackay said.

“I remember thinking on 16 after Payne bladed his chip past the hole that Tiger was the guy that probably had the best chance to possibly catch me,” said Mickelson, who still had 6 feet of his own to navigate to save par. “I felt like I was in control.”

Somehow, Stewart made the putt, his last thought before stroking it being the advice his wife, Tracey, had given him the night before to keep his head still. When the ball went in, Stewart pointed his index finger to the sky. Then Mickelson missed his putt, his only bogey of the day. The two were tied, while Woods was one behind, having made a rare birdie on the same hole, which at 489 yards was the longest par 4 in U.S. Open history at the time.

The 17th would prove even more consequential, with Woods giving a stroke back after lipping out from 8 feet for par. Stewart and Hicks agreed on a smooth 6-iron into the 191-yard par 3, and the result was a brilliant shot to within 5 feet. Stunned by Stewart’s long par save, his own miss and then Stewart’s fine approach, Mickelson needed to gather himself quickly.

“It was probably the most pressure he had ever faced up to that point in a major,” Mackay said.

Mickelson chose a 7-iron and smoked it to within 8 feet. “At that point,” Mackay said, “I could really sense something special was unfolding. The golf both of them were playing was absolutely incredible.”

Unfortunately for Mickelson, his putter betrayed him again and he missed wide right on the birdie attempt.

“I pulled them both,” Mickelson said of the putts at 16 and 17. “Just poor putts.”

Stewart’s birdie putt was true, and he had restored his lead with one hole remaining. Naturally, nothing would come easily on the uphill, par-4 18th, starting with a drive that he lost just a fraction to the right. It missed the first cut of fairway by 4 inches. Stewart could barely believe his luck when he got to the ball.

“It was one of the worst lies I’d seen all week,” said Roger Maltbie, NBC’s on-course reporter.

Stewart hacked his ball back into the fairway with a wedge and then guided a lob wedge onto the green, 18 feet away. Mickelson, meanwhile, had found the green in two, but he was 35 feet from the hole. And although he put a fine stroke on the birdie attempt, his ball settled just to the right of the hole. Par. And a par-70 in the final round that gave him even-par 280 for 72 holes.

Now it was up to Stewart. Two putts for a tie, one putt to win.

Watching in his hotel room after finishing earlier was Paul Azinger, one of Stewart’s closest friends. He knew Stewart could make the putt, but didn’t necessarily believe he would.

“I thought he might leave it short,” said Azinger, winner of the 1993 PGA Championship, who finished tied for 12th that week at 289. “Think about his reputation then. People didn’t think that he knew how to finish, that he didn’t have the heart. That last putt was all heart.”

Stewart read inside left. He kept his head still. He followed through. He made it. He punched at the cup with his right fist, his right leg rising up and splayed behind him in that now iconic pose.

Talk about heart. Stewart’s closing 70 required only 24 putts, including three combined on the final three holes. With a 1-under 279, Stewart became the 19th player to win multiple U.S. Opens and just the fifth man to follow a runner-up finish with a win the next year. The last to do it before Stewart was Nicklaus in 1972 at Pebble Beach.

“Last year after the Open, I kept hearing from people saying: ‘What a great try. What a great effort you gave it.’ Well, I didn’t want to hear that today,” said Stewart, choking back tears. “That motivated me like you can’t believe.”

Before he even retrieved the ball from the hole, Stewart was consoling Mickelson and congratulating him at the same time.

“Good luck with the baby,” said Stewart while holding Mickelson’s face in both hands. “There’s nothing like being a father.”

“I think it would have made a cool story for my daughter to read about someday as she got older,” Mickelson said after the first of his record six second-place finishes in the championship. “But this is still something special.”

“You look back on it now,” said Hicks, who these days caddies for Spencer Levin, “and the ending was probably about as perfect as it could be.”

Amy Mickelson went into labor the next day, and Phil got back in time for the birth of the first of his three children, daughter Amanda Brynn, just 26 hours after the disappointing defeat.

After the obligatory post-championship activities, Stewart celebrated with Hicks at his home in Mebane, N.C., until about 4 a.m. “We drank moonshine, we drank just about everything out of that trophy,” Hicks recalled. Stewart was 42 years old, had just won his third major championship, and not only did he have his game figured out, but also his life.

“I’d never known him to be happier,” Hicks said. “He was at peace with himself.”

Four months later, he was gone. On Oct. 25, Stewart boarded a Learjet35 bound for Dallas with his agents, Van Ardan and Robert Fraley, and Bruce Borland, a golf course architect with Nicklaus’ design firm. Shortly after takeoff, the plane lost cabin pressure, incapacitating all on board including the two pilots. After its fuel was expended, the jet crashed in a field near Aberdeen, S.D.

“You never know why things happen,” Davis Love III said later that week at the Tour Championship in Houston, where Stewart was supposed to compete. “This is definitely going to have an influence on people when they realize, ‘Hey, this guy finally had peace with himself and peace in his faith and his beliefs, so, it is never a good time, but he was at least happy with himself and his life and his family at the time that he was taken.’”

The memory of Stewart is forever preserved at Pinehurst. A statue of Stewart in his air-punching victory pose sits behind the 18th green of Course No. 2.

Mickelson recently was asked about his memories of the two-time U.S. Open champion. Just one thought came to mind.

“That last hole is the way I choose to remember him as a player, a person and a father,” he said. “Watching him win our national championship and the class he did it with was something that I'll always remember.”

***

“You beauty!”

No, they weren’t just random words blurted in unbridled elation. They had meaning. Hicks knew. He’s been asked about it from time to time, and the memory of it is poignant and bittersweet, for it brings back thoughts of two close friends who are no longer with him.

“Bruce Edwards [the caddie for Tom Watson who died in 2004 of ALS] had a nickname for everybody,” Hicks explained. “If you did something out of the ordinary or crazy or stupid, he’d call you ‘a beauty.’ Everyone in this little circle with Bruce – and Payne and I were in that circle – we just called each other beauties. That’s why Payne said that … you beauty.”

It was a beauty. And like its author, it always will be.

Dave Shedloski is a freelance writer whose work has previously appeared on USGA.org.

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