U.S. Open not the same without Payne Stewart

Watching the U.S. Open yesterday, it was hard not to notice something was missing.
There were no knickers. There was no signature golf hat. There was no collared shirt with the logo of an NFL team.
There was no Payne Stewart.
The defending Open champion who died tragically in a plane crash last fall, was only a memory at Pebble Beach during the first round of the tournament. But he is a memory no sports fan will ever forget.
As a child, watching golf on television wasn’t one of my favorite hobbies. But on that occasional rainy Saturday in the middle of the summer, it was one of my few options.
That’s where Stewart came in.
His crazy outfits and unique style made him stand out among his fellow golfers on the course.
He was the most recognizable player on the tour — something that appealed to a young golf-viewer like myself.
One of Stewart’s proudest moments as a golfer took place right here in Minnesota. His first U.S. Open title came in 1991 at Hazeltine National in Chaska.
Last year, eight years after raising the trophy in Chaska, he won his second championship at Pinehurst No. 2 in North Carolina. Sinking a putt on the final hole of the tournament gave Stewart the title.
But that was the end to Stewart’s golfing legacy. It’s been nearly eight months since his death, but no one on tour has put it behind them.
Paul Azinger, who was one of Stewart’s best friends on tour, is still stung emotionally by his absence at Pebble Beach.
“It’s still hard to grasp that he’s not here,” Azinger told the Associated Press. “This is our U.S. Open champion. I mean, think about that, there’s a blank spot there. It’s just … disbelief. I can’t describe it.”
Prior to Wednesday’s practice round at the Open, Stewart’s peers gave him a 21-tee salute by driving golf balls into the Pacific Ocean.
Yesterday, the young Sergio Garcia wore an outfit that could have been taken out of Stewart’s closest. Garcia played his opening round in Stewart’s traditional knickers.
Then, the legendary Jack Nicklaus — perhaps the greatest golfer ever — was teary eyed as he stepped up to the tee box on the first hole.
It was Nicklaus who took Stewart’s spot in the championship three-some.
“We’re going to miss Payne at the Open,” Nicklaus said. “The tour was hit hard by (his death). He was just coming into the prime of his career.”
I will miss seeing Stewart’s name on the leaderboard during those rainy Saturday’s this summer — especially at this weekend’s final rounds of the Open.
Watching the U.S. Open yesterday wasn’t the same. Without Payne Stewart and his knickers, it will never be the same.

John R. Carter is the sports editor and welcomes comments at [email protected]