25 Years Later: Remembering Payne Stewart’s Dramatic U.S. Open Title

By David Shefter, USGA

| Jan 23, 2024 | Liberty Corner, N.J.

25 Years Later: Remembering Payne Stewart’s Dramatic U.S. Open Title

Hours after producing one of the most dramatic victories in U.S. Open history, a jovial Payne Stewart was celebrating his triumph in the Mebane, N.C., home of longtime caddie Mike Hicks. The now three-time major champion could have easily hopped on a private jet and returned to his Orlando, Fla., residence, or stayed in the Village of Pinehurst to privately celebrate the one-stroke victory over Phil Mickelson with close friends and family.

Nobody, including Hicks, would have raised an eyebrow had Stewart reneged on a promise to play in his caddie’s charity outing for North Carolina Children’s Hospital, an event that also featured major champions Fred Couples, Paul Azinger and Hal Sutton and raised more than $50,000. 

The party began around 11 p.m. and lasted into the wee hours of the morning. With three small kids, Hicks, who limited his alcohol consumption, retired around 4 a.m. while a slightly coherent Stewart, who 12 hours earlier converted an 18-foot par putt on the 72nd hole of Pinehurst Resort & Country Club’s Course No. 2 to claim his second U.S. Open, finally climbed into bed shortly thereafter. Four hours later, Stewart, dressed in his traditional golf attire, including his plus-fours, looked as if he had slept for a full 10 hours. True to his word, Stewart played that day in front of around 4,000 spectators, 2,500 of whom purchased tickets that day to see the sport’s newest major champion.

“A flurry of people showed up,” said Hicks. “It was chaotic. We didn’t prepare for that many people. We didn’t have any ropes up. People were all over the place. We got through it and raised a lot of money.” 

Payne Stewart and his longtime caddie, Mike Hicks, avenged a bitter runner-up finish in 1998 with a sweet victory a year later at Pinehurst. (USGA/JD Cuban)

Payne Stewart and his longtime caddie, Mike Hicks, avenged a bitter runner-up finish in 1998 with a sweet victory a year later at Pinehurst. (USGA/JD Cuban)

Four months later, Stewart, who would have turned 67 on Jan. 30, was tragically gone. He, along with five others, perished when their private jet crashed in rural South Dakota after the cabin became depressurized, instantly killing everyone on board from hypoxia. Looking back, it made what transpired in the North Carolina Sandhills that much more surreal. 

“He was taken from us way too early,” said Hicks, who was on Stewart’s bag for all three of his major titles and was one of his closest friends. 

Stewart’s road to the 1999 U.S. Open began one year earlier at The Olympic Club in San Francisco, Calif. Owning the 54-hole lead, Stewart was caught and eventually passed by Lee Janzen, the same player who outdueled him five years earlier at Baltusrol Golf Club in New Jersey. That disappointment lingered with Stewart, but Hicks said the performance provided a major confidence boost.

Going into the 1999 season, Stewart didn’t have an equipment contract. Before starting the West Coast Swing, Hicks flew to Orlando and upon landing in central Florida, the two immediately drove to a major golf outlet to pick out a bag. Unrestricted by his brand of ball or clubs, Stewart, whose contract with Spalding ended after 1998, returned to playing Mizuno irons, a Titleist driver and a Titleist ball. Twenty-four hours before the Pebble Beach Pro-Am, he put a SeeMore putter in his bag and won the 54-hole rain-shortened event. That was followed by runner-up finishes at the Honda Classic and MCI Heritage. 

But a week prior to the U.S. Open, Stewart missed the cut in Memphis, Tenn., which, as it turned out, was a blessing. Hicks caught a Friday evening flight home and was at Pinehurst that Saturday for early scouting. Stewart met with his Texas-based instructor Chuck Cook that same day, walking Course No. 2 with only a sand wedge and putter.

Dr. Richard Coop, Stewart’s mental coach, joined the group the following day, and as they strolled down the par-4 second hole, Hicks mentioned to Coop that Stewart was struggling to pick out his intermediate targets. By the next hole, Coop posed that question to Stewart and the 42-year-old backed off and realized he wasn’t applying that to his pre-shot routine.

Payne Stewart and caddie Mike Hicks were not only a great tandem on the course, but became extremely close friends off the golf course. (USGA/JD Cuban)

Payne Stewart and caddie Mike Hicks were not only a great tandem on the course, but became extremely close friends off the golf course. (USGA/JD Cuban)

“I believe that’s why he won,” said Hicks. “Something that small.”

Ron Crow, who had just moved to the Pinehurst area that March, also noticed something about Stewart during his final practice round. Crow was a volunteer scorer that week and happened to be touring the grounds on Wednesday when he stopped to watch Stewart. With his syrupy swing, Tam-O-Shanter cap and plus-fours, Stewart always drew eyeballs from golf fans. Crow watched how Stewart dropped golf balls in different areas around Donald Ross’ famous dome-shaped green complexes, seeing how they reacted to putts from the closely-mown areas.

“I was impressed,” said Crow, who would get a much closer perspective of Stewart four days later. “I thought, Keep an eye on him.”

Added Hicks: “He was very locked in all week. You didn’t see it very often with him. There was a different focus in his eyes. That week I didn’t do a whole lot for him. I’d tell him where the wind was. He pulled the club out and knew what he wanted to do. 

“He was just on automatic pilot.”

Rounds of 68-69-72 gave Stewart the 54-hole lead for a second-consecutive year, this time by one shot over father-to-be Mickelson, who was expecting his first child any day. While Stewart garnered headlines for being back in contention, Mickelson and the now-famous beeper attracted plenty of media fodder. Back in California, wife Amy was on the verge of delivering the couple’s first child and the left-hander told every reporter on property that he’d leave the championship if she went into labor, even during the heat of competition. His longtime caddie, Jim “Bones” McKay, was responsible for carrying the beeper, and everyone prayed it wouldn’t go off before the championship concluded on Sunday.

When championship Sunday arrived, a light mist greeted the field. Before he made the 65-mile drive to Pinehurst from his home that morning, Hicks presciently told his wife that if Stewart made four birdies, he was going to hoist the trophy. 

Mike Hicks continued to caddie after Stewart's tragic death for a number of prominent players before retiring and moving to Tennessee. (USGA/John Mummert)

Mike Hicks continued to caddie after Stewart's tragic death for a number of prominent players before retiring and moving to Tennessee. (USGA/John Mummert)

“And he made four,” said Hicks. “We knew it was going to be a battle, but he was playing as good as anybody. He had a U.S. Open short game. You have to be good around the greens to win a U.S. Open.”

During his Saturday practice-round walk-through, Stewart had used a red Sharpie to mark up his yardage book. His notations included spots on each green where you couldn’t play from. 

“Over the course of 72 holes, he hit it into one of those red areas once. That was on the second hole [in the final round] when he made a 6-footer for bogey. That’s why he won. He always had the ball where he could play the next shot. That just tells you how extreme it can be around those greens.”

Another pivotal moment occurred before either Stewart or Mickelson struck a shot on Sunday. Crow, who got the plumb assignment of being the volunteer walking scorer for the final pairing, was on the first tee when Stewart had an odd request. 

Did anyone have scissors?

Within minutes, a member of the pro shop staff provided one to Stewart, who promptly cut off the sleeves of his rain jacket, inventing what later became a fashion statement for golf attire.

“It was damp and cool for that time of year,” said Crow. “Every volunteer had a jacket on that was issued. When we first got our uniforms [that week], so many were asking why a jacket was included.”

While Stewart’s three consecutive one-putts to close the championship are remembered the most, Crow recalled a conversation between Hicks and Stewart on the par-4 13th. With a tough back-right hole location, Stewart told his caddie he was playing to the center of the green. The conservative – and wise – decision led to the third of his four final-round birdies.

Three holes later, Mickelson was clinging to a one-stroke lead, and appeared in solid position to increase that advantage. But a critical reversal took place in a matter of moments. Stewart’s magical week continued with a 25-foot par putt that ignited a roar that could be heard in nearby Southern Pines, and a stunned Mickelson missed his par putt. Suddenly, the two were tied. 

On the par-3 17th, Stewart’s perfectly struck 6-iron stopped 4 feet from the hole, setting off another roar. Mickelson answered with a 7-iron that was just outside his fellow competitor’s ball. Mickelson missed and Stewart converted to go one ahead.

As he approached the 18th tee, Crow was wowed by the sheer number of spectators lining the par-4 hole.

“I had never seen such a crowd in one particular location,” he said. “It looked 10 deep every inch of the way from the tee to the green. Walking up the 18th fairway, if I didn’t feel the ground shaking, it was close to it. You could hardly get the gallery to quiet down for Payne’s [second] shot out of the [right] rough.”

With his man in trouble and Mickelson on the green in two shots, the only thoughts going through Hicks’ mind were his Monday outing. A possible 18-hole playoff meant he’d be a no-show at his own charity event. What stood between Stewart and a second U.S. Open title was 18 feet of manicured turf. 

“I didn’t think he was going to make it,” said Hicks. “First of all, two-putting meant living to see another day. You don’t want to be too frisky and run [the putt] by [too far]. I really didn’t expect him to get [the ball] there. Then by the grace of God, it goes in. It was just meant to be.”

Down in the scoring area, Crow was met by Mickelson and eventually Stewart. In 1999, everything was tabulated on a sheet instead of a mobile device. He meticulously noted greens hit in regulation, putts taken and the scores. He even read them off to both players for verification.

USGA president Buzz Taylor also was there, and he told Stewart and Mickelson to autograph the back of his scoring sheet. Crow, not an autograph hound by nature, also had Taylor sign it. Then Taylor told Stewart to autograph one of his golf balls for Crow. To this day, he doesn’t know if it was the actual ball used on No. 18, but he has the piece of memorabilia encased in a plastic box.

Hicks, meanwhile, caddied for Stewart at the Ryder Cup three months later, and was at Champions Golf Club in Houston, Texas, waiting for his man to arrive when the call nobody ever expects to receive came.

Hicks, 62, retired last June from caddying and has relocated to Kingsport, Tenn. After the tragedy, he caddied for Bob Estes, Janzen, Steve Stricker, Justin Leonard and Spencer Levin. While he’s done some speaking engagements for a Cary, N.C.-based event-planning company, Hicks spends a lot of his time supporting his four children. Jacob, his second-oldest child, is the assistant men’s golf coach at North Carolina State, and his youngest, Esteban, is an up-and-coming player hoping to play at the Division I level. 

With the U.S. Open returning to Pinehurst this June and it being the 25th anniversary of the first one held at Course No. 2, Hicks is prepared to be asked about that memorable run. U.S. Open week always provides emotional flashbacks.

“It was the most exciting U.S. Open of my lifetime,” said Hicks. “You had the drama with a leader board that included Duval, Tiger, Vijay and Mickelson. They were all right there, and a 42-year-old past champion got them.”

David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at dshefter@usga.org