Remembering Payne Stewart As U.S. Open Begins

Jun 12, 2014
Originally published on June 12, 2014 2:42 pm

Many of the best golfers in the world are in Pinehurst, North Carolina, today for the start of the U.S. Open. The match will played on the recently restored course Pinehurst No. 2.

Fifteen years ago, a golfer named Payne Stewart won the tournament in Pinehurst, N.C., but died in a plane crash just four months later.

From the Here & Now Contributors Network, Jeff Tiberii of WUNC reports from Pinehurst.


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While they play soccer in Brazil, many of the best golfers in the world are in Pinehurst, North Carolina, today for the start of the men's U.S. Open. The match will be played on the recently restored course number two and the legacy of one of the sport's most beloved figures will take center stage. From the HERE AND NOW Contributors Network, WUNC's Jeff Tiberii reports from Pinehurst.

JEFF TIBERII, BYLINE: 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 and a right fist extended straightforward in victory. The statue preserves a moment now 15 years old. It's an instant more famous than any other that this course has seen since it opened in 1907.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Payne Stewart is the 1999 U.S. Open champion. Oh, my. What a play.

TIBERII: In his trademark knickers, Payne Stewart won the event on that misty Father's Day with a 15-foot putt on the final hole. He kissed his wife, Tracey, and celebrated his second U.S. Open win. Golf writer Ron Sirak was there.

RON SIRAK: The dramatic way it ended with 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.

TIBERII: 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. A decision for his statue came almost immediately.

PAT CORSO: Truly the idea to do it came at LaGuardia.

TIBERII: Pat Corso was the president of Pinehurst for 17 years. He was returning from Scotland when he got the news of Stewart's passing.

CORSO: When he became the champion, to much of this community at that time, he was our champion. And when he passed, we lost our champion. And that was even more reason to memorialize him on golf course No. 2, as you see it today.

TIBERII: 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.

CORSO: They found aerial photos from Fort Bragg from World War II training of the golf course as it was in 1943. And so those shots were used to restore the course.

TIBERII: Gone is much of the picturesque green grass. Instead, competitors and spectators will see a more rustic course fitting of the original landscape. First time at a U.S. Open, there will be no rough. That's the tall grass next to the fairway.

CORSO: It so contemporary, yet so back to the future in terms of restoring a course that would be more sustainable, meaning that it would take much less water, fewer chemicals - but yet meet the standard of hosting a major championship event.

TIBERII: The course is still expected to test the patience of golfers. U.S. Opens are notoriously difficult on a score of pars, usually good enough to stay in the hunt. Again, Ron Sirak.

SIRAK: You have to maintain that composure to know other people are having the same difficulties you are and you just got to hang in there and put a bad shot behind you, or sometimes you even hit a good shot, it ends up in a bad place. But there's no tournament that tests the patience and the discipline of a player more than the U.S. Open.

TIBERII: Tiger Woods won't be competing at this year's Open due to an injury. But many of the very best will be here, including Australian Adam Scott, the world's top-ranked player. And Phil Mickelson, who is still looking for a career grand slam. He's won the Masters three times, the British Open, and the PGA championship, but never the U.S. Open.

Mickelson has finished second in this event a record six times. The first occasion was in 1999 when Payne Stewart sunk that 15 foot putt. For HERE AND NOW, I'm Jeff Tiberii, in Pinehurst, North Carolina.

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I'm Meghna Chakrabarti. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.