William Payne Stewart was born January 30, 1957 in Springfield, Missouri.
His father had played golf in the 1955 U.S. Open and introduced golf to Payne at an early age.
Payne went on to play golf at Southern Methodist University where he failed to earn his PGA tour card in his senior year of college.
He decided to play on the Asian Tour for a couple years, winning two golf tournaments in 1981.
Payne finally earned his PGA tour card in 1982 and won his first event at the Quad Cities Open the same year. This win was special to Payne because it was the only time his father was able to see his son win a PGA event (his father died of cancer in 1985).
He was always popular with fans, especially for his distinctive clothing, and was reputed to have the biggest wardrobe of all professional golfers. Payne was a favorite of photographers because of his flamboyant attire of ivy caps and patterned pants, which were a cross between plus fours and knickerbockers, a throwback to the once-commonplace golf “uniform”.
Payne would go on to win 8 PGA Tour events along with the PGA Championship in 1989, the US Open in both 1991 and 1999.
At the 1999 US Open, his last major title, he won by holding off Tiger Woods and then memorably holing out a 15-foot par putt on the 72nd hole that defeated Phil Mickelson by one stroke.
After defeating Mickelson, the above photo shows Payne looking into Phil Mickelson’s eyes, cupping his head and famously saying “It’s OK, your going to be a father!”
Today, there is a statue of Payne Stewart celebrating this winning putt behind the 18th green at Pinehurst.
Payne also represented the United States on five Ryder Cup teams and played for the United States on three World Cup teams.
1999 PGA Tour season
My father and I were fortunate enough to have been there and witnessed Payne Stewart win the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am in early February of 1999, just 8 months before his tragic death.
In 1999, Payne Stewart ranked third on the all-time money list and was in the top ten of the Official World Golf Ranking. At a time of international domination of the professional golf scene, Payne was often the highest-ranked American player.
Then, one month after the American team rallied to win the 1999 Ryder Cup in Brookline, Massachusetts, and four months after his U.S. Open victory at Pinehurst, Payne took off from Orlando, Florida in route to the last PGA event of the season, The Tour Championship being held in Houston that year.
October 25, 1999
It was Monday morning, October 25, 1999 and Payne was planning to stop off in Dallas to discuss a new home-course for the SMU golf program.
Payne boarded Learjet 35, tail number N47BA, operated by Sunjet Aviation at 9:19 am.
Aboard the Learjet with Payne were two pilots, his agents Robert Fraley and Van Ardan, and Bruce Borland, a highly regarded golf architect for the Jack Nicklaus golf course design company.
After takeoff, the controller from the Jacksonville ARTCC instructed the pilot to climb and maintain a 39,000 feet flight level. The pilot acknowledged the clearance by stating, “three nine zero bravo alpha.”
This was the last known radio transmission from the aircraft, and occurred while the aircraft was passing through 23,000 feet.
The next attempt to contact the Learjet occurred six minutes, 20 seconds later (14 minutes after departure), with the aircraft at 36,500 feet, and the controller’s message went unacknowledged.
The controller attempted to contact N47BA five more times over the next 4½ minutes, again with no answer.
According to a USAF timeline, after ground controllers lost contact, a series of military planes intercepted the aircraft beginning with an F-16 from Eglin Air Force Base about an hour and twenty minutes after the last contact.
The Learjet began, apparently on autopilot, began angling off-course, as it continued its flight over the southern and midwestern United States.
The military pilots observed frost or condensation on the windshield (consistent with loss of cabin pressure) which obscured the cockpit, and no motion was visible through the small patch of windshield that was clear.
The plane continued flying until it ran out of fuel and crashed into a field near Mina, South Dakota, a town ten miles west of Aberdeen, after an uncontrolled descent.
National Transportation Safety Board investigators later concluded that the plane suffered a loss of cabin pressure and that all on board died of hypoxia.
A delay of only a few seconds in donning oxygen masks, coupled with cognitive and motor skill impairment, could have been enough to result in the pilots’ incapacitation.
At that week’s tournament, Tour Championship, Stewart’s good friend, Stuart Appleby, organized a tribute to his friend. With Stewart’s wife’s permission he wore one of Payne’s own signature outfits for the final round of the tournament on Sunday, and most of the rest of the golfers in the field wore “short pants” that day as well.
Today a segment of Interstate 44 passing through Springfield, Missouri, has been designated the “Payne Stewart Memorial Highway” in his memory.
He also has a street in Fullerton, California, and a “Payne Stewart Drive” in Surrey, British Columbia, Canada, leading into Northview golf course designed by Arnold Palmer, named after him.
Finally, Payne Stewart Drive in Jacksonville, Florida houses The First Tee along with a Job Corps Center.
The communities of Mina and Aberdeen created their own memorial. Jon Hoffman, owner of the property where the plane crashed, contacted Stewart’s widow and several family members of other crash victims – all agreed that the memorial would be a rock pulled from the crash site, engraved with the victims’ names and a Bible passage. Hoffman has fenced in about an acre of the property surrounding the memorial.
In 2000 the PGA Tour established the Payne Stewart Award, given each year to a player who shows respect for the traditions of the game, commitment to uphold the game’s heritage of charitable support and professional and meticulous presentation of himself and the sport through his dress and conduct.
In tribute to Stewart, as well as his southwestern Missouri roots, the Payne Stewart Golf Club was opened in Branson, Missouri, in June 2009 with the approval of Stewart’s widow.
Ground-breaking on the $31 million layout took place on July 24, 2006. The 7,319 yard, 18-hole course was designed by Bobby Clampett and Chuck Smith. Each hole on the course is named for some aspect or notable moment in Stewart’s life. The fifth hole, for example named “Road Hole”, recounts the incredible par Stewart made in the first round of the 1990 Open Championship at Old Course at St Andrews when he was forced to knock his third shot against the wall behind the green at the Old Course’s treacherous 17th. His ball finished just on the back fringe from where he chipped in.
On the tenth anniversary of Stewart’s death in 2009 Golf Channel presented a special program to remember the life of the late golfer.
It included recorded interviews with family and friends, and archived videos of his golf career.
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