Payne Stewart's Legacy Lives On As U.S. Open Returns To Pinehurst
Overlooking the 18th hole at Pinehurst No. 2 is a statue of a man. He’s standing on one leg, a putter dangling in his left hand and a right fist extended straight forward, in victory. The statue preserves a moment now 15 years-old. It’s a moment more famous than any other that this course has seen, since it opened in 1907.
In his trademark knickers, Payne Stewart won the event on that misty Father’s day with a 15-foot birdie putt on the final hole. He kissed his wife Tracy and celebrated his second US Open win.
"The dramatic way it ended – Payne making the putt on the 72nd hole to win the Tournament – created a drama that just made the tragedy of his death a few months later in October completely unbelievable," said Ron Sirak, Executive Editor of Golf World Magazine and Senior Writer for Golf Digest.
Just four months later, Stewart was on a private jet that experienced a loss of cabin pressure. Everyone on board died. The aircraft, then on autopilot, veered off course before crashing into a field in South Dakota, hours later. Stewart was 42. The decision for a statue came almost immediately.
"Truly the idea to do it, came at LaGuardia," explained Pat Corso. He was the President of Pinehurst for 17 years and learned of Stewart’s passing on a trip home from Scotland.
"When he became the champion, to much of this community at that time, he was our champion, and when he passed we had lost our champion; and that was even more reason to memorialize him on golf course No. 2 as you see it today," Corso said.
Today Stewart’s legacy remains part of the culture at Pinehurst. This course is one of the oldest and most celebrated in the country. However, it will look distinctly different than when this event was held here in 1999 and 2005. Pinehurst No. 2 has undergone a major restoration in an effort to return the layout to its original form.
"They found aerial photos from Fort Bragg from World War II training of the golf course as it was in 1942 and so those shots were used to restore the course," said Corso.
Gone is much of the picturesque green grass. Instead, competitors and spectators will see a more rustic course, fitting of the original landscape. For the first time at a US Open there will be no rough – that’s the tall grass next to the fairway.
"It’s so contemporary, yet so back to the future, in terms of restoring a course that would be more sustainable meaning it would take much less water, fewer chemicals, but yet meet the standard of hosting a major championship event," said Corso.
The restoration resulted in the removal of 40 acres of turf as well the irrigation system underneath.
"We left that soil in those areas undisturbed. Nature will provide ways to stabilize the ground if it’s not cultivated annually. And the results of us removing the turf, over 70 native plants have decided to grow there," described Bob Farren, Director of Grounds at Pinehurst.
Nevertheless, this new course is still expected to test the patience of golfers. US Opens are notoriously difficult events, when a score of par is usually good enough to stay in the hunt.
"You have to maintain that composure to know other people are having the same difficulties you are; and you just got hang in there and put a bad shot behind you – or sometime you even hit a good shot and it ends up in a bad place. But, uh, there is no tournament that tests the patience and the discipline of a player more than the US Open," Sirak, the golf writer, said.
How the course holds up is something organizers and competitors will be monitoring closely. For the first time ever the men’s and women’s US Open tournament will be at the same venue in consecutive weeks.
Organizers are naturally hoping for good weather and that the men’s tournament is decided on Sunday, so as to avoid an 18-hole playoff on Monday.
The joint events will bring an estimated 400,000 fans to the region, and pump $169 million into the local and state economy. Tiger Woods won’t be competing due to an injury. But many of the very best will be here, including Australian Adam Scott – the World’s top ranked player; Webb Simpson – a Raleigh native and the 2012 US Open winner; as well as Bubba Watson – two-time winner of the Master’s; And, then there is Phil Mickelson. One of the game’s most popular players is still looking for a career Grand Slam. He has previously won the Masters three times, the British Open and PGA Championship, but never the US Open. Mickelson has finished second in this event a record six different times. The first occasion was in 1999, when Payne Stewart sunk that 15-foot putt.