Remembering Payne Stewart’s dramatic 1999 Open victory

The 2024 U.S. Open, which begins Thursday on Course 2 at Pinehurst Resort & Country Club in Pinehurst, N.C., will be hard to match the excitement that played out on the same course and in the same tournament a quarter-century ago.

At the 1999 Open Payne Stewart, 42, hit a 15-foot putt for par on the 72nd hole to surpass Phil Mickelson by a stroke. Stewart, known for his flashy wardrobe — he wore underpants — recovered the four-stroke lead he had lost on the final day of the Open a year earlier at the Olympic Club in San Francisco.

The win at Pinehurst was Stewart’s third major title; he had captured the PGA Championship in 1989 and the US Open in 1991.

In October 1999, en route to the final tournament in Texas, Stewart was killed in a plane crash, which also killed five others.

His widow, Tracey Stewart; his caddy, Mike Hicks; Peter Jacobsen, a friend and former tour pro; and the NBC analyst Gary Koch recently reflected on Stewart and his 1999 triumph.

Their comments have been edited and condensed.

Peter Jacobsen When he first came out [on the PGA Tour], he was quite stubborn. His goal was to conquer the world. I think the game of golf humbled him a little bit and allowed him to focus more on what he needed to do to become a great player, and that’s exactly what he did. He became a man of tremendous faith, a great father and a great husband.

MIKE HICKS He was definitely a changed man. It was clearly the way he dealt with the loss at the Olympic Club. The old Payne Stewart in the early nineties would have been a bit bitter about that loss and probably wouldn’t have dealt with the media the way he did on Sunday after the defeat. We ran the tournament all week. He took that disappointment and that loss and turned it into something positive. He proved to himself that he could still play at a very high level, especially in a major, and that continued into 1999.

GARY KOCH I saw him at the range early this week and he seemed very comfortable and confident. Mike was from the Raleigh area and Payne had spent time there with Mike for years, and I wonder if that affected his comfort level a little bit.

TRACEY STEWART He missed the cut in Memphis [the week before]and I think he was planning on coming home, and I said, ‘Why don’t you take Chuck Cook with you? [his instructor] and get up early and practice there?’ So they did, and I think he and Chuck walked around the golf course with maybe two or three clubs, and he figured out where not to hit the ball.

HICKS I felt good and he felt good. He played well. We were rested. That tournament in Memphis [FedEx St. Jude Classic] didn’t end until Monday, so it was a blessing we missed that cut. We played Sunday, Monday and Tuesday and then Wednesday, we hit a bucket of balls and putted for about 15 minutes, and we left the course at 11 o’clock that morning. We had an early start time on Thursday, so when he showed up he was prepared.

HICKS That was the worst lie [in the rough for the approach shot] whole week. He didn’t even ask me what we had on the green. He somehow carved out an 8-iron. It was amazing that he got the 8-iron on it. [The third shot] It was fairly predictable that he would allow himself a putt, but [not] the length of the putt you think you’re going to make, especially to win a US Open.

STEWART I could see Payne but I didn’t know where the hole was. I prayed he could fix it [the putt]. The crowd went crazy. And then I had to go outside to see him, and it took a few minutes because there were people everywhere. He turned around and saw me, and he immediately grabbed me and whispered in my ear, “I did it, honey.”

HICKS I’ll be honest with you. He lines up that putt. I think, we’re going to play on Monday [in a playoff].

KOCH If you think about it, it’s pretty rare that someone makes a putt, especially one of that length, on the last hole of a major to win. Tiger’s 72nd hole at Torrey Pines [to force a playoff in the 2008 U.S. Open] naturally comes to mind, but you have to put Payne’s up there.

JAKOBSEN When that putt went in, I literally couldn’t believe it. To make putts like that to win majors, especially for par, is indescribable. I was elated.

HICKS He is immortalized with a statue in Pinehurst.

HICKS Obviously he would have been a Ryder Cup captain. He was always a decent putter, but he had become a great putter. I think he could have competed in more majors over the next four or five years because he was in such good shape. His back wasn’t great, but he had learned to take good care of it.

JACOBSENS I always wonder what Payne would be doing today. Maybe he would be doing television. I think he would be one of those iconic individuals in golf.

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