Payne Stewart will be missed by all of us

Payne Stewart, probably my favorite golfer, died yesterday in a plane accident. Nobody’s quite sure how he died, and to be honest, I don’t want to write about that.
Stewart was one of the most recognizable golfers on the tour for a lot of reasons. Sure there were the knickers that his detractors (both of them) loved to hate.
But Payne was something special.
Sure everybody likes to watch Tiger Woods and David Duval, but how many people identify with them? I look at Woods and wonder what it’s like to start playing at age 3. I look at Duval and see a privileged lifestyle.
But when I looked at Payne, I saw a reflection of me. And so did a lot of other people. You wouldn’t see Payne on some post-round interview talking about getting the club parallel and 90 degrees from his hips. That’s mumbo jumbo and he knew it.
He wasn’t gifted with the terrific drives or a wonderful short game that typify many of the stars on the tour.
Payne just went out and worked. He’d put on that deadly focused look of his and go hack away at the course. He didn’t fly over the fairway bunker, he hit out of it, 20 feet from the hole. Payne didn’t keep it in the fairway, he sawed through 4-inch rough to get his ball on the green.
He was a lot like us.
Any time I watched Stewart play a clutch match, I always felt like I could go out and do it too. Not because I’m as skilled as he was, but because he won by sticking everything he had — his concentration, his mind, and his heart — all into his golf game.
I’ve never done that, and I don’t know anybody who has. I’ve never seen another pro with that same intent look on his face, only to release it in an expression of sheer joy upon winning.
In June, Stewart drained a 15-foot putt to win the U.S. Open on the final hole. He didn’t just pump his fist or smile like a typical pro might.
He screamed at the top of his lungs.
He yelled, spun to face his caddy and started hugging everybody in sight.
Even if you’ve never watched or played golf you probably understand what Payne Stewart was about.
Payne Stewart was a human being, not a star that we put on some pedestal. I could relate to Payne Stewart when he grimaced over putts at the Ryder Cup or winced when he missed another green at the British Open.
Back in the ’80s and early ’90s I didn’t like Payne Stewart much. I was a twerpy kid who didn’t like golf very much. Anytime Payne came on the screen, I’d make fun of his clothes and wonder why this guy was even trying to compete. He wasn’t overpowering, his game was plain and he wasn’t very exciting.
That all changed when Stewart met Hazeltine National Golf Club.
I was rooting for Scott Simpson at the start of the ’91 U.S. Open playoff. There was no logic to it, I just didn’t like Payne.
As the round progressed, my blood pressure rose with each shot Stewart hit. The guy didn’t make mistakes. He just hit greens and got out of trouble when he needed to.
Nothing flashy, but enough. He won me over there and with his play at the Ryder Cup over the years. I’ve never seen a golfer win on sheer grit like Stewart did.
His game never struck me as polished. He was just a guy going out and trying to do his best against the course. Just like me, just like anybody who’s ever picked up a club.
If the pros on the tour now or in the future take anything from Stewart, let it be his heart, his grit and his love for the game.
We saw a lot of ourselves in Payne Stewart. He never acted like a groomed country club golfer, and we could relate to that. When Stewart died, in a small way part of the reason I love golf went away too. Some of the fire is gone now, and he’ll be missed.

Jim Schortemeyer is the sports editor and welcomes comments at [email protected]