BROOKLINE, Mass. — Paul Azinger was standing near some practicing pros on the US Open shooting range, telling a story about the worst day of his life. He had just left Disney World with his family in the fall of 1999, and after spending hours blissfully disconnected from the real world, he finally turned on his flip phone.
The messages came like a freight train.
Are you alive? Are you on that plane? You are safe?
Azinger couldn’t process the questions. Finally, his brother contacted him somewhere between the Orlando theme park and his home in Bradenton, saying, “Payne’s plane crashed and everyone is dead.”
Payne Stewart’s plane, carrying Azinger’s best friends. Robert Fraley, Bill Parcells’ agent, and other star NFL coaches. Van Ardan, a marketing genius. And Stewart, the loud-mouthed, flamboyant golfer and reigning US Open champion who had just pulled off one of the most graceful moves in Ryder Cup history a month earlier at The Country Club outside of Boston.
The Learjet was en route from Orlando to Dallas for a brief stopover before finishing the trip to Houston, home of the Tour Championship. “People thought I might have been on that plane because they were all my friends,” Azinger, a 12-time PGA Tour winner and Ryder Cup captain, told The Post on Tuesday. He remembered being on I-4 that day, stopped at a rest stop after the call with his brother. Azinger called his father.
“And then I lost all the strength in my legs and fell straight to the ground uncontrollably,” Azinger said. “I just fell.”
He finished the trip with his wife, his two daughters and his best friends in silence, and when he got home, he collapsed on the ground again. With the permission of Stewart’s wife, Tracey, Azinger would later begin his eulogy by donning Payne’s famous tam-o’-shanter cap and rolling up his pants in Payne’s famous plus-four style to reveal Payne’s famous Argyle socks. .
“Payne stood out,” Azinger said Tuesday. “He didn’t want to not stand out. He went up to the shooting range one day in Bay Hill and saw six guys wearing the same jersey, and he decided he would never be that guy.”
Nearly 23 years later, with The Country Club back as the center of the golf universe, the late great Stewart stands out in the form of his final big-game act. You know the history of the Ryder Cup ’99. The Europeans held a 10-6 lead before the Americans staged a furious rally inspired by a rowdy Boston crowd. During the penultimate game, Stewart vs. Colin Montgomerie, the Scotsman was subjected to a level of verbal abuse that made Fenway’s treatment of Derek Jeter’s Yankees seem friendly by comparison.
Monty’s father went off the field in the first nine. On the fifth hole, Stewart had promised the Scotsman that he would help keep an eye on the crowd, and sure enough, the American flagged down a couple of undisciplined rowdies for security. “Some of our fans are out of control and it’s not appropriate,” Stewart said.
As the two waited later to make their approach shots on the 17th, Justin Leonard drained his eternal 45-foot shot that set off a wild (and wildly inappropriate) American dance in the end zone that stomped all over Jose Maria’s line of putt. Olazábal and effectively sealed the deal. The fans acted like the Red Sox had won it all for the first time since 1918, and they celebrated a little more at Monty’s expense.
With his match tied on the 18th green, and with nothing but his individual records on the line, Stewart took stock of the damage already done and picked up his Montgomerie ball marker and conceded victory. Stunned by the gesture, Monty rose from his crouch, clapped his hands three times, and warmly greeted his approaching opponent.
“We had already won the Ryder Cup,” Stewart said. “That’s what it is, a team event. My individual stats mean nothing, and I wasn’t going to put him through that.”
That night, Stewart jumped on top of Tiger Woods while he was sleeping and ordered him to rejoin the team’s late-night party. Phil Mickelson’s caddy at the time, Bones Mackay, recalled that Stewart celebrated America’s victory like no one else. “Last time I saw the guy,” Mackay said, “he was dancing on top of a piano.”
At 42, a loving husband and proud father of two sons, Stewart had a long way to go.
“We talked after the Cup and I told him he did the right thing by conceding,” Azinger said. “And Payne said to me, ‘When I’m captain, you’ll be my assistant.’ I will never forget”.
Four weeks later, a sudden loss of cabin pressure inside Stewart’s plane killed all six people on board before the plane left Florida, sending it on a phantom flight across the country. Followed by F-16 fighter jets positioned to shoot the plane down if necessary, the plane operated on autopilot until it ran out of fuel and crashed into an open South Dakota field. The sports world stopped and mourned the death of a man who had just given a profound lesson in sportsmanship.
“Payne sometimes got into trouble off the field, when he would cross the line and pick on you and play practical jokes on you,” Azinger said. “When Payne said cheeky things, we all got angry. But you always knew he would do the right thing when it came to etiquette and the rules of the game. Everything Payne did was ethical, and he really loved him for it.”
This week, Stewart’s Ryder Cup jersey is framed and hanging in the US Open locker room, courtesy of his wife. In a turbulent time in golf, it’s a helpful reminder that, at its best, the game is defined by dignity and grace.