Today would have been the birthday of the late Payne Stewart, an American professional golfer who won three major championships and was known for his gentlemanly attitude, his individualistic attire and possibly the largest wardrobe of any golfer. He always wore plus-fours and ivy caps, which harked back to yesteryear and the British golfers of the 1920s and 30s. He stood out from his fellow professional golfers, who generally wore simple slacks and a polo shirt. His natty attire garnered so much attention that he even started his own clothing line.
He grew up in Springfield, Missouri and was taught golf by his father, who had himself played to a very high standard, competing in the 1955 US Open. When Stewart won the 1999 US open on Father’s Day, on the final green he hugged his playing partner and main rival Phil Mickelson and consoled him with the words, “You’re going to be a father”, a role which Stewart valued above all else.
Stewart was not only finely dressed, but also a gentleman. In the 1999 Ryder Cup, when European player Colin Montgomorie was harshly heckled by the American fans, Payne Stewart was quick to criticize the crowd saying that “This game is about sportsmanship”. At another time he was also quoted as saying, “In the end it’s still a game of golf, and if at the end of the day you can’t shake hands with your opponent and still be friends, then you’ve missed the point.”
However he was not always so considerate and friendly, but had his own personal journey to becoming the gentleman much loved and admired.
He was famously moody, and had a love-hate relationship with the press, as it was easy to like him but also easy to be frustrated with him. After he became a father for the second time, and his fellow golfer and great friend Paul Azinger fought a life-threatening battle with cancer, he started to reassess his life. He had always believed in God, but it had not been a key part of his life. His family and the potential loss of a great friend inspired him to make the transition to becoming a devout Christian and that was when the true gentleman started to show himself.
He grew from a brash, cocky, young player of the 1980s to an ambassador for the game in the late 1990s. He had the wonderful gentlemanly talent of being able to make other people feel special.
His love of traditional clothing went hand in hand with his passion for playing the British links (seaside) courses. The links firm ground and strong winds demanded that players frequently require had to shape shots and play the ball along the ground, as opposed to the golf tour’s American courses, which generally required long high golf shots that drop and stop quickly on soft, well-watered greens.
In October 1999, Stewart was flying from his home in Orlando, Florida to Texas for the final tournament of the year, when. Air traffic control became concerned when the plane ceased communications and a military plane was able to fly close enough to see that the pilots and passengers were all unconscious, which must have been due to a lack of oxygen caused by the plane becoming depressurised. There was nothing anyone could do, except follow the plane until it ran out of fuel and crashed to the ground. Tragically, that is exactly what happened, and all those on board lost their lives.
Payne Stewart is still fondly remembered and a statue was erected in his memory at Pinehurst where he won the US Open, punching the air in a pose that is possibly the most famous victory celebration in golfing history.
In 2014, the US Professional Golf Association posthumously awarded him the Bob Jones Award for his contributions to the game.
Let’s remember this legend of the fairways and hope that other golfers emulate is gentlemanly approach to life and the sport they love.