GOLF

Paul Azinger remembers Payne Stewart’s act of grace

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BROOKLINE, Mass. – Paul Azinger stood by some practicing pros on the US Open court, 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 blissfully disconnected from the real world, he finally turned on his flip phone.

The messages arrived like a freight train.

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Are you alive? Are you on this plane? Are you safe?

Azinger could not process the questions. Eventually, his brother caught up with him somewhere between the Orlando theme park and his home in Bradenton, and told him, “Payne’s plane crashed and they’re all dead.

Payne Stewart’s plane, which carried Azinger’s best friends. Robert Fraley, Bill Parcells’ agent and other star NFL coaches. Van Ardan, a marketing whiz. And Stewart, the talkative, flamboyant golfer and defending US Open champion who had just made one of the most graceful moves in Ryder Cup history a month earlier at the Country Club outside Boston .

The Learjet was heading from Orlando to Dallas for a brief stopover before completing the trip to Houston, site of the Tour Championship. “People thought I could have been on that plane because they were all my friends,” the 12-time PGA Tour winner and Ryder Cup-winning captain told The Post Azinger on Tuesday. He remembers being on I-4 that day instead, stopping at a rest area after the call with his brother. Azinger phoned his father.

“And then I lost all strength in my legs and fell straight to the ground uncontrollably,” Azinger said. “I just fell.”

Golfer Paul Azinger delivers a eulogy wearing a Tam-O-Shanter hat during a memorial service for golfer Payne Stewart.
Golfer Paul Azinger delivers a eulogy wearing a Tam-O-Shanter hat during a memorial service for golfer Payne Stewart.
Reuters

He completed the ride with his wife, two daughters and their best friends in silence, and when he got home he again collapsed to the ground. Courtesy of Stewart’s wife, Tracey, Azinger would later open his eulogy by donning Payne’s famous tam-o’-shanter cap and rolling up his pants in Payne’s famous plus-fours style to reveal the famous Payne’s Argyle socks.

“Payne stood out,” Azinger said Tuesday. “He didn’t want to not stand out. One day he walked onto the shooting range at Bay Hill and saw that six guys were wearing the same jersey, and he decided he would never be that guy.

Almost 23 years later, with the Country Club returning to the center of the golf universe, the late, great Stewart stands out in the form of his last great game. You know the story of the 1999 Ryder Cup. The Europeans held a 10-6 lead going into Sunday’s singles before the Americans staged a furious rally inspired by a boisterous Boston crowd. During the penultimate game – Stewart vs. Colin Montgomerie – the pasty Scotsman was subjected to a level of verbal abuse that made Fenway’s treatment of Derek Jeter’s Yankees seem neighborly by comparison.

Monty’s father left the course on the front nine. On the fifth hole, Stewart had promised the Scotsman that he would help control the crowd, and sure enough, the American flagged a few unruly hecklers to security. “Some of our fans are out of control and it’s not appropriate,” Stewart said.

As the two waited later to hit their approach shots on the 17th, Justin Leonard emptied his eternal 45-footer which sparked a wild (and wildly inappropriate) American end zone dance that trampled the entire line of putt of Jose Maria Olazabal and effectively sealed the deal. Fans acted as if the Red Sox had won it all for the first time since 1918, and celebrated even more at Monty’s expense.

With their game even on the 18th green, and with nothing more than their individual bests at stake, Stewart assessed the damage already done and picked up his Montgomerie ball-marker and conceded victory. Stunned by the gesture, Monty rose from his squat, clapped three times, and greeted his approaching opponent warmly.

“We had already won the Ryder Cup,” Stewart said. “That’s what it is, a team event. My individual stats don’t mean anything, and I wasn’t going to put that to him.

Payne Stewart and Mark O'Meara play during the 33rd Ryder Cup at Brookline CC in Boston, Massachusetts.
Payne Stewart and Mark O’Meara play during the 33rd Ryder Cup.
Getty Images
Payne Stewart celebrates with his teammates after the 33rd Ryder Cup at Brookline CC in Boston, Massachusetts in 1999.
Payne Stewart celebrates with his teammates after the 33rd Ryder Cup at Brookline Country Club in 1999.
Getty Images

That night, Stewart jumped on top of a sleeping Tiger Woods and ordered him to join the team’s late night party. Phil Mickelson’s caddy at the time, Bones Mackay, recalled that Stewart celebrated the American victory like no one else. “Last time I saw the guy,” Mackay said, “he was dancing on a piano.”

At 42, a loving husband and proud father of two, Stewart still had a lot to do.

“We spoke after the Cup, and I told him he did the right thing by conceding,” Azinger said. “And Payne said to me, ‘When I’m captain, you’ll be my assistant.’ I will never forget him.

Four weeks later, a sudden loss of cabin pressure inside Stewart’s jet killed all six people on board before the plane left Florida, sending it on a phantom flight across the country. Trailed by F-16 fighter jets positioned to shoot the plane down if necessary, the aircraft operated on autopilot until it ran out of fuel and crashed in an open field in South Dakota. The sports world stood still and mourned the death of a man who had just given a profound lesson in sportsmanship.

“Payne got into trouble off the course sometimes, when he crossed the line and heckled you and joked about you,” Azinger said. “When Payne said brash stuff, we all bristled. But you always knew he would do the right thing when it came to etiquette and the rules of the game. Everything Payne did was ethical, and I really loved him for it.

This week, Stewart’s Ryder Cup jersey is framed and hanging in the US Open locker room, courtesy of his wife. In golf’s turbulent times, it’s a helpful reminder that, at its best, the game is defined by dignity and grace.

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