Brooklyn, Massachusetts – Standing near some practicing pros at the US Open range, Paul Azinger was telling a story about the worst day of his life. He had just left Disney World with his family in the fall of 1999, and after spending hours happily separated from the real world, he finally turned on his foldable phone.
The messages came like a freight train.
are you alive? Are you on that plane? are you safe
Azinger was unable to address the questions. Finally his brother reached him somewhere between a theme park in Orlando and his home in Bradenton, and said to him, “Paine’s plane crashed, and they’re all dead.”
Payne Stewart’s plane carrying Azinger’s close friends. Robert Fraley, Bill Parcell’s agent and other stars of the NFL coaches. Van Arden, Marketing Expert. And Stewart, a brilliant golfer and US Open champion who had just made one of the most dignified moves in Ryder Cup history a month earlier at The Country Club outside Boston.
Learjet was flying from Orlando to Dallas for a short layover before ending the trip to Houston, the site of the Tour Championship. “People thought I could have been on that plane because they were all my darlings,” Azinger, a 12-time PGA Tour winner and Ryder Cup captain, told The Post on Tuesday. He remembered he was on I-4 that day instead, and he stopped at a break after the call with his brother. Azinger called his father.
“Then I lost all my strength in my legs and fell to the ground uncontrollably,” Azinger said. “I just fell.”
He ended the journey with his wife, two daughters, and their close friends in silence, and when he got home, he collapsed to the ground again. Courtesy of Stewart’s wife Tracy, Azinger later opened the eulogy by donning Payne’s iconic tam-o’-shanter hat, and rolling up his pants in Payne’s iconic Plus-fours style to reveal Payne’s iconic Argyle socks.
“Paine has made himself stand out,” Azinger said on Tuesday. “He didn’t want to not stand out. He went up into the field one day in Bay Hill and saw that there were six men in the same shirt, and he decided he would never be that man.”
Nearly 23 years later, with The Country Club returning as the center of the world of golf, the late great Stewart is emerging in the form of his last big game. You know the story of the 99 Ryder Cup. The Europeans were leading 10-6 with their singles entry on Sunday before the Americans staged a furious rally inspired by the raucous Boston crowd. During his penultimate match – Stewart vs. Colin Montgomery – the Scotsman was subjected to a level of verbal abuse that made Fenway’s treatment of Derek Jeter seem close by comparison.
Monty’s father went off the track in the front ninth grade. On the fifth hole, the Scotsman Stewart promised that he would help watch the crowd, and the American surely pointed out two unbridled security guards. “Some of our fans are out of control and that’s not appropriate,” Stewart said.
While the two later waited to hit their shots on the 17th, Justin Leonard drained his 45-footer which unleashed an unruly (and wildly inappropriate) American zone end dance that trampled all over Jose Maria Olazbal’s laying line and effectively sealed. Deal. Fans acted as if the Red Sox had won it all for the first time since 1918, and did some celebration at Monty’s expense.
With their game even in the 18th green, and with nothing more than their singles records on the streak, Stewart assessed the damage already done and picked up his Montgomery ball marker and agreed to win. Shocked by the gesture, Monty rose from the bow, clapped three times, and warmly saluted his approaching opponent.
“We’ve already won the Ryder Cup,” Stewart said. “It is what it is, a team event. My individual stats mean nothing, and I wouldn’t put him in the way of that.”
That night, Stewart jumped over a sleeper Tiger Woods and ordered him to join the team party late at night. Phil Mickelson’s canister at the time, Bones Mackay, states that Stewart celebrated the United States’ victory like no one else. “The last time I saw the guy, he was dancing on top of a piano,” MacKay said.
At 42, a loving husband and a proud father of two, Stewart had a lot of life left to do.
“We talked after the cup, and I told him he did the right thing in the waiver,” Azinger said. And Payne told me, ‘When I’m captain, you’ll be my assistant. “I will never forget that.”
Four weeks later, a sudden loss of cabin pressure inside Stewart’s plane killed all six people on board before the plane left Florida, sending it on a ghost ride across the country. Tracked by F-16 fighter jets positioned to shoot down the plane if necessary, the plane ran on autopilot until it ran out of fuel and crashed into an open field in South Dakota. The world of sports paused and mourned the death of a man who had just given a profound lesson in sportsmanship.
“Sometimes Payne would have trouble getting off the track, when he would cross the line and practically tease and joke you,” Azinger said. “When Payne said loud things, we all felt rough. But you always knew he was going to do the right thing when it came to etiquette and the rules of the game. Everything Payne did was ethical, and I really liked him for that.”
This week, Stewart’s Ryder Cup jersey was framed and hung in the US Open locker room, courtesy of his wife. In a turbulent time in golf, it’s a helpful reminder that the game, at its best, is defined by dignity and grace.