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The Last Stand of Payne Stewart
The Year Golf Changed Forever
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No one agrees on the number of hills there are to climb in San Francisco. Everyone acknowledges the famed original seven, among them Russian and Telegraph and Mount Davidson and the Twin Peaks, but there might be as many as forty-two in and around the city. Merced Heights, the hill nearest the Olympic Club in nearby Daly City, rises five hundred feet above sea level on the other side of California Highway 1 from the site of the 1998 U.S. Open, which is where Payne Stewart did plenty of climbing over four days that June. Dimpled with testy pitches and slopes and boomeranged angles, the Lake Course at Olympic made the best players of the year work diligently and patiently at the national championship of golf, particularly at keeping their balls from peeling through fairways and into the rough, dense and long and cruel, like beads of water on wax. Those golfers in 1998 certainly saw more than just forty-two hills, and all of them felt like threats. How many hills are there in San Francisco? It depends on how the climber defines the climb.
Payne finished the first round and signed his scorecard: a 66. He had one more hill to walk that Thursday, but he was happy to do it. An official with the United States Golf Association fetched him for post-round press interviews, in the clubhouse many steps above the eighteenth green, to answer questions about how he’d played such an unforgiving golf course in four strokes under par.
Payne remembered how it felt in 1991, when he’d gotten to explain to reporters how he’d won his first U.S. Open. He remembered the losses, too, but he now embraced this moment at Olympic, which was such a charmed place to him. His father had played the 1955 U.S. Open at Olympic as an amateur. Bill Stewart missed the cut, but knowing he had played these holes gave Payne another reason for gratitude. He bounded up the hill to join the reporters, many of whom he knew by name but hadn’t seen in years. While Payne hadn’t always been interested in talking to them, and many of his interviews had ended poorly before, this time would be different. He knew what to expect from them, and he knew what to expect of himself.
The crowd in the room watched William Payne Stewart stride to his seat, his six-foot-one-inch frame still lithe but not as limber, and smooth his smudgy blond hair, darker now than it was in his youth, and shorter and thinner, with less of a feather now and no more bangs. When he spoke, people still heard the hills of southern Missouri in his high-pitched voice, the twang of the Ozark Mountains, a relic of what some called, inelegantly and dismissively, a hillbilly or a Missouri mule. Here was a man who once had imagined a Fitzgeraldian life of fame, wealth, and happiness through golf—a temporal existence made possible by the moment of impact of steel on rubber. He always had been a man motivated by moments. Moments lived in. Moments lived for. He had made his decisions in the ephemeral, and some of those decisions had cost him, and now he no longer wanted to be the same man with the same values who pictured the same future. The Payne Stewart who sat down in San Francisco on June 18, 1998, had suffered. He regretted the decisions that dictated the way people saw him, just as he understood and accepted that they were not altogether wrong to see him in the way they did. It had taken him a long time to see what they had seen. It had taken reflection, and now he felt a new commitment rising in him, a dedication to change while there was still time to make changes. He didn’t like who he had been. But he liked who he could become. He could start now, after this round of golf at the Olympic Club. Payne sensed a fresh moment. This one felt permanent. It felt important.
He faced the room.
No one knew what to expect when Payne addressed the professional golf media. After a poorly played round or a lost tournament, he could be abrasive and churlish, even mocking. He privately had felt unfairly criticized over the course of his career for things he said and did. He had long felt like the media made more out of his antics and words than they really deserved, to the point that he flinched when he saw a headline that seemed too harsh or twisted. But this, too, had changed. Payne was beginning to accept the role of the reporters who wrote about him. It wasn’t their job to promote him. It was their job to portray him. It stung sometimes to read about himself, to see in black ink his own actions and voice, but when he settled down enough to think clearly, he had to admit that he deserved it sometimes. The press held a mirror, and if that mirror didn’t reflect truth and fact as he saw it, Payne acknowledged that it reflected, at the very least, how reporters saw him.
Those at the Olympic Club tried to recall when he had last been interviewed at a U.S. Open—or any major championship. It had been a while. Years. Les Unger, the USGA media official, had managed many press conferences in his career in sports, and he understood the delicate dynamics of an interview with an athlete, so he eased into the exchange by congratulating Payne on his round. He said it was nice to see him again. He noted that Payne hadn’t been recently to a U.S. Open press conference.
“You never invited me,” Payne said, pretending indignation. “I would’ve come.”
“You have to do something to be invited,” Unger said.
Payne smiled. Of all people, he surely knew a well-earned barb when he heard one.
“That’s a good shot,” he said. “I will take it. I deserve that.”
The room brightened. The atmosphere at a U.S. Open, the second major championship on the golf calendar, can tend to feel charged given the difficulty of the conditions: the constricted fairways, the speed of the greens, the expectations both real and imagined, the pressure, the opportunity, the fear, the ghosts. Players could be tense. But the playful start to the interview drained some of the formality of this occasion as Payne, now forty-one years old, described how he made five birdies against one bogey to be sitting in front of the media again after a long time away with a one-shot lead in a major championship.
There was a lot to discuss and dissect that afternoon in Northern California. The meaning of this tournament seemed even larger, and it surpassed the routine concerns of scores, shots, and million-dollar purses. The field included Casey Martin, a twenty-six-year-old Stanford graduate from Oregon who’d successfully sued, under the Americans with Disabilities Act, for the right to use a riding cart on the PGA Tour. Martin suffered from a circulatory ailment in his leg. The condition impaired his ability to walk a golf course, especially hilly Olympic. The federal court decision, announced in February, had divided the tour, a place where social issues rarely occupied time in a press conference. Sides had to be picked: rally behind a man with a disability or forsake him in the name of tradition and competition. Perception mattered. But rules were rules. Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus had testified in favor of the tour, which argued that allowing Martin to ride in a cart would give him an unfair advantage over players who had to endure the stress and strain of walking. There was little room for nuance.
“Are you, in particular, interested in that or over it?” Payne was asked.
“I am a supporter of Casey Martin, and I always have been,” Payne said. “Let him play.”
A younger Payne might not have been so magnanimous. The Payne of the past could be ugly and shrill, selfishly consumed with personal gain to the point that his peers in the game thought of him as a self-absorbed brat. Now here he was, after a long absence from prominence, saying that golf should change its position on what it was “because the game is bigger than that.”
Attention returned to his play in the first round. Payne answered routine questions about putts, pin placements, distractions, focus, expectations, the slope of the greens, and a rather inane attempt to clarify what he thought of his four-under 66 (“It was really good,” he said). No one brought up Baltusrol in 1993, when rounds of 70-66-68 had positioned Payne a shot behind the third-round lead. In that U.S. Open, Payne had trailed Lee Janzen, a quiet and assiduous man of twenty-eight, who wore muted tones on the golf course and rarely made the newspaper headlines. He was nearly the opposite of Payne, who was eight years older and full of flourish, but Janzen actually admired Payne. The former all-American at Florida Southern appreciated the fact that Payne also hadn’t played for a top-tier college program, and he saw parallels in the way he and Payne had taken long and winding paths to the PGA Tour and to the final round of the 1993 U.S. Open in Springfield Township, New Jersey.
Paired that Sunday in ’93 for the first time in a major, Payne and Janzen had nipped at each other throughout the hot and humid day. Neither player made much of a move early. Payne sacrificed a crucial shot on the seventh, when he had to play a left-handed shot from the base of a tree trunk. Janzen, meanwhile, kept making workmanlike pars. Then luck made its cameo. On the tenth hole, Janzen hit a shot right through a tangle of branches to save himself from disaster. He holed an improbable chip from the rough for birdie on the sixteenth. His drive at the next hole, a long par-five, ripped through a maple and bounded into the fairway. Janzen’s mistakes cost him nothing, and all Payne could do was watch. His even-par 70, typically a fine score in a U.S. Open, wasn’t enough. Janzen clipped him by two. The champion called it destiny. Payne called it another lost tussle with fate.
Janzen was in the field again in 1998 at Olympic, but he shot 73 in the first round, seven distant shots behind Payne. He left that day without a visit with Unger and the gathered press. Payne, meanwhile, fielded questions about the penalizing slopes of the Lake Course, where drives to the middle of the fairway might carom into long grass in low spots. He had prepared for that frustrating possibility. He and his instructor, Chuck Cook, spent a few days the week before at Isleworth, one of Payne’s home clubs in Orlando, rehearsing the curving shots dictated by the Lake Course. On holes that moved left to right, Payne drove with his fairway metal, a shorter club he felt most comfortable drawing into the camber of slope, rather than along it. On holes that flowed the opposite direction—draw holes that move right to left—he used a driver. Payne could cut a driver at will. Cook picked up Payne’s balls in the fairways of Isleworth and placed them on uneven lies for the approaches. Payne didn’t hit a shot from a flat stance the entire time in Florida. He was ready for San Francisco and its hills, those large and small, both metaphorical and actual.
A reporter finally asked Payne to reflect: In what ways was he a better player than he was in 1991?
Payne took a moment to think about the ’91 U.S. Open at Hazeltine National near Minneapolis. He was thirty-four then and unstoppable. He was a two-time major winner, a couple of years removed from his PGA Championship title in Chicago, a flaming success from the Ozarks of Missouri. He was the famous celebrity in the knickers and the vintage cap, someone even casual fans of golf could recognize in silhouette. But that moment in Minnesota also represented the beginning of a struggle he now, after the first round at Olympic, had begun to solve. Was Payne better? The question seemed innocent enough. But it was more meaningful than anyone knew.
“I’m probably a more mature player,” Payne said finally. “I feel that I probably am a more complete player. Things went real good in 1991, so you can’t complain about that. But I just think I am, you know, older. And wiser.”
In the second round, Payne started with three straight birdies to reach seven under par through twenty-one holes. Stretching his lead to five, he now had made six consecutive birdies: the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth on Thursday and the first, second, and third on Friday. He tied a U.S. Open record set by George Burns in 1982 and by Andy Dillard a decade later. Payne knew he was on an unsustainable pace. The course was just too severe. In practice rounds earlier in the week, his caddie, Mike Hicks, had repeated over and again that par was a good score at the Lake Course.
“The key to winning a U.S. Open is staying away from the double bogey,” Hicks had reminded him. “You’re going to get a few birdies. You’re bound to make some bogeys. But stay away from losing two at a time.”
Payne obeyed. But he encountered complications inevitable in a U.S. Open—losing tee shots to the sharp angles of the fairways, making bogeys instead of pars. The course was toughening, just as the USGA wanted it to. As the anticipation of the weekend grew, spectators began to rally—around their favorite players and against their favorite villains. Colin Montgomerie, the Scotsman with a reputation for being fragile, left a putt a foot short on one hole. “Why don’t you cry about it, Colin?” rose a voice. Montgomerie marked his ball and waited dramatically for silence. The USGA later dispatched additional security to his group. Payne, meanwhile, tried to play smart golf with an impenetrable focus. He didn’t care how the gallery treated Colin Montgomerie. He was abiding to the plan he’d rehearsed in Orlando.
But he just wasn’t quite as sharp as he had been Thursday. Even the tee shots he played with his one-iron—like many players of his aging generation, Payne still carried a one-iron, the hardest club in golf to play with skill—seemed to leave an impossible approach. He came to the eighteenth hole at even par for the round, still in the lead but teetering.
He drilled a two-iron on the short finishing hole to wedge distance. He carved the approach to ten feet. His ball stopped to the right of the hole, which was cut deep in the pitched green and near the left edge. It was the correct, mature play. It eliminated a miss to the left—the dreaded short side, which on increasingly firm U.S. Open greens like Olympic’s would mean certain bogey or worse. Payne marked his ball and tried to parse its path to the cup.
He clearly could see the side-hill slant. Hicks recommended he play it gingerly, allowing for a cautious line with more break. He later regretted the advice. Hicks wished he’d told him to hit the putt boldly. Payne applied a gentle stroke to the ball. It missed the hole by three inches and kept going, tumbling for a half minute like a leaf in a breeze, as Payne, indignant and scowling, followed along with his arms crossed. His ball stopped some twenty-five feet downrange. He missed the return putt for par.
Hicks watched him closely. He looked for signs that Payne might be boiling. The Payne he knew—Hicks had carried his bag since 1988, through good seasons and bad ones, through harmony and distress—had a way of personalizing the vagaries of golf. That Payne Stewart could turn a bad break into self-destruction. It was something Payne tried to limit. But it also was who he was. He had a hard time accepting chance in all its forms. His fragile temperament had cost him tournaments before, and it had shaped his legacy, which is what hurt and frustrated Hicks the most. He wanted Payne to rise above his misfortune, not revel in it.
On this Friday, Payne swallowed whatever resentment roiled inside, signed his scorecard, and, because he held a one-shot lead in the championship, reported to his post-round interview with an evenness that both surprised and buoyed his caddie. Unger, the media official, elected to open the interview by mentioning the birdie-birdie-birdie start. “Can’t birdie them all unless you birdie the first three,” Payne said.
The mood of the room felt like it had the day before: loose, light, jovial. Even when a reporter inevitably brought up the eighteenth hole, Payne avoided criticism that might seem petty and generate the wrong kind of headline. He told a television reporter earlier that the hole position was “bordering on ridiculous.” That much was true. Jack Nicklaus had made a forty-foot putt there to make the cut—the last time he would play the weekend in a U.S. Open. But other players suffered as Payne had. Frank Nobilo faced thirty-five feet for birdie on eighteen and, after his putt failed to reach the hole, twenty-five for par. He missed. He called it “the worst pin I’ve ever seen in a major.” Tom Lehman required four putts to finish the hole. He seethed.
“Give me a half hour,” he told a reporter after he finished, “or I might kill somebody.”
The demonstrative John Daly, whose soaring drives at the 1991 PGA Championship had hinted at the kind of golf that was yet to come, also dropped a shot on the final green. “People watching on TV probably thought we were idiots,” he said. “That’s not golf, and it’s not fair. It was absolutely stupid.” The usually agreeable Kirk Triplett, who knew he was going to miss the cut anyway, grimly planted his putter behind his ball, halting its roll and incurring a two-shot penalty from the USGA. He didn’t appear to care.
“I suspect he was trying to make a statement,” said USGA executive director David Fay.
Fay would later admit the hole placement was a mistake on one of the smallest greens in championship golf. The USGA knew that only the front half of the eighteenth was in manageable shape, he said, but cutting the hole there all four days would’ve created problems of its own. The number of footprints and spike marks would’ve maimed the surface by Sunday afternoon, when the drama was at its deepest. Fay and the USGA took a risk. They watered the back of the green and cut it at a higher height. They expected the back-left hole to be hard. It became a monster. Fay called it a “miscalculation.”
Payne remained steady in the interview room. He waited for the questions about the eighteenth green to end. When they did, a reporter asked about Janzen, who was on the course, crafting a round of 66, moving into position to play with Payne in the last group on Saturday.
“If I’ve got to play with somebody, it might as well be somebody I know,” Payne said.
Another reporter asked about the mechanics of Payne’s swing, which had long been a model of impeccable timing, supple rhythm, and flowing grace. Payne wanted to tell everyone in the room that the struggle since 1995 hadn’t been his swing. The struggle had been with his own creeping indifference, and that had started with his equipment. Locked into a binding and lucrative sponsorship deal that required him to use clubs and balls that didn’t suit the way he learned and liked to play, Payne was beginning to accept that he needed to make changes. But he kept that to himself among the reporters. He had learned it was bad form to complain.
Unger said there was time for one more question. Someone inquired about focus. Did Payne still care as much about winning golf tournaments?
“I have got a beautiful wife and two lovely kids that I am really enjoying spending time with,” Payne said. “And as I’m getting older, it is getting harder and harder to go out and do the grind out on the PGA Tour.”
It felt good to be honest. The reporters appreciated it, too. It gave them context and perspective that informed their accounts of birdies, bogeys, and holes bordering on the ridiculous. Many players they wrote about kept a shield around their lives, as if explaining their personal values might prevent them from playing better golf. Payne was like that once. He was done pretending. He had made the decision to pare down his schedule so he could spend more time at home in Florida.
Payne had one more thought to share before he left to prepare for the weekend: “There is more to life than playing professional golf.”
The Lake Course at the Olympic Club opened in 1924, in the early years of the golden age of golf-course architecture, a period when bold and taxing tests of golf were being routed by Donald Ross at Pinehurst No. 2 and Seminole and Oakland Hills, Douglas Grant and Jack Neville at Pebble Beach, George Crump at Pine Valley, A. W. Tillinghast at Winged Foot, George Thomas at Riviera, Alister MacKenzie at Cypress Point, and MacKenzie and Bobby Jones at Augusta National. Architects of the golden age employed dramatic bunkering as both fortresses to penalize poor shots and beacons to show the way for good ones. They created greens that heaved and flowed with the contours of the surrounding topography. They saw no point in trying to fashion a golf hole that looked out of place. Their work became timeless.
Designed by Willie Watson and restored by Sam Whiting after a terrible winter storm in 1925, the Lake at Olympic wound through forty thousand cypress trees in the southwest corner of San Francisco, near enough to the Gulf of the Farallones that Payne could glimpse the Golden Gate Bridge from the tee of the third hole. The course was not long, but it was bunkered fiercely, and the pitch of the fairways—the hills of San Francisco in miniature—demanded so much of the greatest players of all time that it had become, by the summer of 1998, a cemetery of broken hopes.
Ben Hogan lost to unheralded Jack Fleck there in 1955. Arnold Palmer wasted a seven-shot lead there with nine holes to play in 1966, pretty much gifting the championship to Billy Casper. Tom Watson got beat there in 1987, when he failed to protect a one-shot lead with five holes left and Scott Simpson won by a stroke. Now here was Payne, reporting Saturday to the par-five first hole, in the same tenuous predicament. He led by one over Jeff Maggert and Bob Tway, and by two over Janzen, Lee Porter, and the amateur Matt Kuchar.
He hammered his drive. (Payne used his driver just twice that Saturday, on the par-five first hole and the long par-four seventeenth, a converted par-five. (“Driving statistics don’t mean diddly to me,” he would say later that afternoon. “I’d like to be in more fairways.”) He chose a five-iron on his second shot. He floated it to twenty feet and banged in the putt for eagle. He was on his way to an even-par 70, and a four-shot lead, with one round to go.
But Payne wasn’t at his best. Chuck Cook, his swing instructor, who already had gone home to Austin, watched the round on television and thought that Payne had lost some of his crispness from his first two rounds. His iron play looked suspicious. Payne missed the third green with a six-iron and made bogey from a bunker. He missed the ninth green: bogey. His seven-iron approach on the fifteenth finished in another bunker: bogey again. Cook attributed the sloppiness to a lack of post-round practice. Payne had played late Friday and Saturday, giving him no time to correct his emerging flaws on the range after his obligations in the media room with Les Unger and the reporters. A late start, especially on the weekend, meant a player was in or near the lead. It was a blessing in that way. But it came with its own set of problems.
Payne gave no hint he was concerned. He said in his press conference that he remained confident. He said he was ready.
“If I come out tomorrow and play the way Payne Stewart can play, I’ll win the golf tournament,” he said. “If I don’t, I’ll deal with that then. But there’s no reason why, in my mind, I don’t believe that I’m not capable of winning.”
He was asked what it would mean to win. It was the kind of question players like Payne, familiar with the lead, had grown used to answering.
“It would prove a point to myself that I still have the ability to compete in major championships,” he said. “There’s no reason why I shouldn’t believe that.”
Payne thought about his wife and children. They were back home in Florida. His young son, Aaron, and his daughter, Chelsea, were getting ready to go to summer camp. Tracey, his wife, was helping them prepare while their father was trying to win a second national championship. There was a time when Tracey, Aaron, and Chelsea traveled with him. Now they had other interests.
“I said this yesterday,” Payne added. “It’s hard to motivate yourself to come out here, year in and year out, and work at it. I don’t want to blink and see my kids are in college, because I know once they’re in college, they’ll probably never live under our roof again. So, if I have the opportunity to spend time with them… that’s what I’m going to do.”
It was nearly dark when Payne left Olympic. He would play the next afternoon with Lehman, a scrappy and tough thirty-nine-year-old veteran from Minnesota who’d risen through the minor tours in Asia and South Africa. Lehman had won the British Open in 1996. It was his only major championship. But he’d been close in the last three U.S. Opens: a finish for third in 1995 at Shinnecock Hills, a share of second in ’96 at Oakland Hills, and third again in ’97 at Congressional. He’d played in the final pairing on all three Sundays. Those who paid attention to golf wondered if it just might be Lehman’s time.
Lehman liked Payne. While not close—given its solitary nature, the PGA Tour didn’t exactly foster close relationships, at least not until events such as the Ryder Cup, and only then when chemistry and the moment conspired to do so—Lehman considered Payne one of the colorful personalities that made the tour compelling to fans. Lehman admired the tempo and timing of Payne’s swing, how liquid it seemed, long and loose. He knew of Payne’s reputation as a mercurial and sometimes insufferable loudmouth. Everyone did. Lehman wondered if it was fair. He wondered if other players were jealous of Payne: his good looks, his fluid swing, his bold ensembles, his undeniable grace on the golf course. Lehman had seen Payne and his wife on the putting green after rounds. He watched them work together, often in silence, and respected the implicit partnership in their marriage. He remembered when Payne had changed his equipment. The move surprised him, as it did many players. It felt like a sellout. It had led to a long, languishing slump. And now here Payne was, in the last group of the national championship, with one of the steadiest U.S. Open players in the last decade: Lehman.
Like Payne, Lehman was a feel player who played a finesse game. He and his generation, made up of players born before 1960, surely wanted to hit the ball hard, but pure length hadn’t become the grail it soon would. They didn’t try to bludgeon the ball. They sought to caress it, to will it through the air with an arc and apex that fit the exact result they had in mind. Lehman learned and peaked in the game as Payne had, with persimmon woods, wound balls, and forged irons. They conjured the spirits of Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson and Sam Snead, even Bobby Jones, men who, in the primes of their careers, never knew the piercing concussion of titanium on the solid-core balls that were becoming standard now on the professional tours. They never enjoyed the ease of playing a cavity-backed iron cast with melted steel; they did their work with smaller irons that were hammered and bent, as the blacksmith once forged the pickax, from a glowing ingot.
- "Payne Stewart was the last of golf's great swingers. In The Last Stand, Kevin Robbins has captured the man's game and style and too-short life for eternity."—Michael Bamberger, author of Men in Green
- "Robbins delves convincingly into the agonizing nitty-gritty of what it takes to miss one less fairway per round, convert one more up-and-down and make one more crucial putt-the tiny improvements that spell the difference between winning a tournament and finishing in the middle of the pack."—The Wall Street Journal
- "Riveting and heartbreaking...Focus[ing] on the final year of Stewart's life while expertly weaving in biographical details...Robbins provides both highly detailed and memorable accounts of Stewart's tournaments...Powerful...This excellent biography is sure to please many a golf aficionado."—Publishers Weekly
- "Few public men have been more obviously flawed than brash, big-mouthed, attention-seeking Payne Stewart, and a slew of his contemporaries might seem better qualified to embody that era. Yet Kevin Robbins has pulled off the impossible: By charting Stewart's herky-jerk walk from brattishness to humility, while illuminating his play as the last-gasp of a golf now gone forever, he has revealed in his subject a largeness, a grace, that even Stewart never dreamed he had. So buy in -- and buckle up. Robbins' meticulously-reported work on Stewart's last hours stands as some of the finest writing on flight -- both its beauty and horrors -- published in years."—S.L. Price, Sports Illustrated senior writer and author of Playing Through the Whistle: Steel, Football, and An American Town
- "Kevin Robbins knows golf, and he has brought energy and verve to the task of unraveling Payne Stewart's enigmatic life. This is a wise and beautifully written book about the inner life and journey of a gifted athlete."—Wil Haygood, author of The Butler
- "Compelling and well told."—Booklist
- "Around Payne Stewart's life, and death, mystique has grown. Kevin Robbins makes it all so lucid and real. There's brilliant reporting here, great humanity, and writing as memorably stylish as Stewart's famed plus fours. Reading this, the gallery will roar."—Gary M. Pomerantz, author, The Last Pass: Cousy, Russell, the Celtics, and What Matters in the End
- On Sale
- Oct 8, 2019
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Hachette Books