Payne Stewart will be remembered for many achievements. But Stewart had one of the most stylish swings of the modern era. It was not the structured action of many of today’s players, but rather a long and wonderfully graceful and fluid movement.
Stewart’s clothes were as stylish as his swing. His outlandish plus-fours, tam and elegant outfits made him unmistakable on the course. “My father always said the easiest way to set yourself apart in a crowd is the way you dress,” said Stewart. Spectators responded enthusiastically to his colorful garb and the plus-fours and tam became a permanent part of his wardrobe.
After playing at Southern Methodist University and earning his degree, the Missouri native turned professional late in 1979, but failed to earn a PGA TOUR card at Qualifying School and instead ventured off to the Asian Tour, winning twice. It was in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where Stewart met Australian Tracey Ferguson, who described the encounter as love at first sight and the couple married a short time later.
"My father always said the easiest way to set yourself apart in a crowd is the way you dress."
“I believe a lot in destiny,” Stewart explained. “There’s a reason those things happened, and the reason was so I could meet my wife.” Through all the peaks and valleys, Tracey was Payne’s constant support and companion as he built his legendary career.
Stewart began playing golf at age four, learning from his father, Bill, a former Missouri State Amateur champion. In 1982, Stewart finally earned his PGA TOUR card and won his first of 11 tour events with his father in the gallery. The victory was a milestone in his career, but grew in importance when it turned out to be the only time his father would see him win. Bill Stewart died of cancer in 1985.
“We had a good cry on the green,” recalled Stewart. “The 1982 Quad Cities will always be my most cherished victory.” When he won again, at the 1987 Bay Hill Invitational, Stewart donated his $108,000 winner’s check to the Florida Hospital Circle of Friends in memory of his father.
Payne Stewart donated his entire first-place check for winning the 1987 Bay Hill Invitational to an area hospital in memory of his father.
For all of his evident talent, Stewart had some hard-luck losses and earned the nickname from his tour colleagues as “Avis,” especially after four losses in sudden-death playoffs, but he shed that monicker in 1989 at the PGA Championship at Kemper Lakes near Chicago when he came from five strokes off the pace with nine holes to play to rally past a faltering Mike Reid.
Winning the PGA, Stewart said later, was not only a sweet triumph, but also a watershed moment in his career. He later went on to win the 1991 U.S. Open in a playoff against Scott Simpson and, after struggling for several years, he experienced a spiritual awakening, rededicating himself to his family and placing a different priority on golf.
Finding an inner peace, a victory at Pebble Beach jumpstarted his 1999 season, which culminated in his crowning achievement, a 15-foot par putt on the final hole to win the U.S. Open at storied Pinehurst No. 2 in a head-to-head battle with Phil Mickelson.
That victory secured a place for Stewart on the Ryder Cup team for the fifth time and the first since 1993. Competing for his country fueled Stewart’s competitive nature, yet he was the soul of sportsmanship, too, when he graciously conceded his singles match to Colin Montgomerie on the 18th green at Brookline C.C. after the U.S. had won.
On Oct. 25, 1999, Stewart’s life was tragically cut short in a private plane crash near Aberdeen, S. D. The words of respect and admiration for Stewart started soon after as word of his death spread.
“Payne Stewart assured himself a prominent place in the history of the game with a career that ended much too tragically and much too soon,” said Arnold Palmer. “He established an impressive record as a player and contributed so much more through his outgoing personality and generous spirit.”