Having written yesterday about the death of a friend, I hesitate (and no I'm not apologizing for today's blog-subject I just like readers to understand my thinking) to write today about Payne Stewart. But with the 10th anniversary of his death coming on Sunday and the airwaves filling up with tributes to him, I'd like to share some thoughts on him. Especially since I just can't bring myself to write AGAIN about how bad the umpiring has been in baseball this postseason.
As often happens when someone dies prematurely and tragically the way Payne did there is a tendency to remember him only in the best light. I get all that. In truth, Payne was a far more interesting person than the saint he has been portrayed as by many since his death. He struggled with his temperament, sought help when his wife, Tracy, all but demanded it and probably changed and evolved more than any athlete I've ever known.
When I first began covering golf in 1993, Payne was far from being a favorite with the media. He was one of those guys who could be charming when things went well, snappish when they didn't go well. I was first introduced to him by Paul Azinger, walking down a fairway at The Belfry during a practice round prior to the '93 Ryder Cup. Azinger explained I was writing a book about life on the PGA Tour and Payne looked at me and said, "Are you APing it?" Baffled I said, "APing it?" He said, "you know, filing it through the AP."
Okay, so he didn't exactly understand how books worked. That didn't make him a bad guy. To be honest, I never had any problems with Payne. Mike Hicks, his caddy, was a friend of mine largely because Mike is a fanatic college basketball fan. When I would stop on the range to talk hoops with Mike, Payne would inevitably walk over and want to talk about the Orlando Magic. We had a friendly, but hardly close relationship.
In 1998, I was working on my second golf book, "The Majors." That was the year Payne blew a four shot lead at The Olympic Club and lost by one shot to Lee Janzen. I was very impressed with the way he handled himself in defeat that day: no snapping at anyone, no excuses, no cutting short questioners. Still, I dreaded asking him to talk about it in even more detail. I had never once asked him for a long sitdown interview and now I had to ask him to sit and talk about what had to be his most painful loss. Still, there was no choice. I had to ask. Payne and Mike were on the putting green at Royal Birkdale on the Tuesday before The British Open when I decided to make the request. I explained to Payne what I was doing and said, "I know this isn't going to be your favorite subject but..."
He was waving me off before I finished the sentence. "It sounds like you're going to need some serious time to do this," he said. "Why don't we just have dinner one night and get it done that way."
Wow, I thought, he certainly understands books a lot more now than in 1993. We agreed to get together the week of The PGA Championship, played that year outside Seattle, at Sahalee Country Club. As it turned out, Payne was staying in a house near the golf course. I went over there on Tuesday night and he cooked steaks for several people. When dinner was over he and I sat on the back deck and I turned on the tape recorder.
It was one of the more remarkable evenings I've had as a reporter. He talked in detail about the loss at The Open. But he also talked about his dad, who had died of cancer very young and how the last thing he had ever told him was that Tracy was pregnant with his first grandchild. He then told me about an incident at Augusta in 1996 when he had missed the cut and was walking to his car with Tracy when a man approached him and asked for an autograph for his young son, who was standing next to him.
"I went off on the guy," Payne said. "I screamed at him that he didn't know the rules, that you weren't allowed to ask for autographs on the parking lot side of the clubhouse. I just went off on him with his son standing there.”
“When we got in the car, Tracy went off on ME. She reminded me first of all that you WERE allowed to ask for autographs on the parking lot side of the clubhouse and, regardless, how could I possibly behave that way in front of the little boy. She said to me, 'Payne, you need help. This has to stop. You embarrassed me back there, worse than that you really embarrassed yourself.'"
To make a long story short, Payne listened to his wife. He got counseling and learned to understand that with the perks of celebrity come responsibilities. The media had a job to do even when you played poorly. Treating fans well was vitally important, not just because it might make you money, but because it was the RIGHT thing to do. Payne came through the counseling a different man, far more appreciative of how lucky he was to be able to swing a golf club the way he did.
Everyone noticed: other players, the media certainly and his family. On that August evening in 1998 we talked long into the night and long after I'd turned my tape recorder off. We talked about having children who had never met one of their grandparents (in my case my mother) and how it made you cry sometimes.
When 'The Majors,' came out one player who played an important role in the book wrote to me to tell me how much he enjoyed it: Payne Stewart. That's not a knock on the other guys, you don't expect thank-you notes doing what I do. In fact, more often, it is appropriate to write them when people give you time. Still, it was nice to receive.
The second to last time I saw Payne alive was at the '99 Ryder Cup. He played singles against Colin Montgomerie and I walked with the match because it was the last one out and I thought it was possible it would decide the Cup. (I was wrong of course). The behavior of the American crowd was awful. At one point as I followed the two players from the ninth green to the tenth tee, some drunk jumped out at Montgomerie and began screaming the worst possible profanities at him. Montgomerie kept going. Payne didn't. He went back and told the guy he was an embarrassment and to shut up.
After Justin Leonard clinched the Cup for the U.S. Payne and Montgomerie came to the 18th hole even, the match meaning nothing at that point except to their Ryder Cup records and egos. Montgomerie hit the green in two and had a 25-foot birdie putt. Payne missed the green and had about an eight-footer for par. Payne walked over to Montgomerie and said, "pick it up, it's good," thus giving him the match.
The last time I saw Payne alive was a few weeks later at the Disney Tournament. I asked him why he'd given the putt to Montgomerie. "It didn't matter to the team," he said. "After what the guy had been through all day I had no problem giving him the win as long as it didn't affect the team outcome."
Pretty damn classy. The last thing he said to me that day was, "Next year bring your family down here for the week. Your kids can do the (Disney) parks and you can all come to the house one night for dinner. We'll even invite (Jon) Brendle, (Jon Brendle is a rules official who is a good friend of mine who lived right next to Payne). I'll cook you another steak."
Three days later he was dead.
I still talk to Mike Hicks about Payne (he's working for Jonathan Byrd these days) whenever I see him. We laugh about him getting on referees at Magic games and sitting as far away as possible when watching his kids because he didn't want to embarrass them with his yelling. Mike loved Payne, always loved him long before his 1996 self makeover.
One day Mike asked me, "how would you describe him in one sentence?"
I thought for a moment and then came up with the answer: "MIP," I said--"Most Improved Person."