The date was Thursday, October 25, and I had a queasy feeling. In fact, for the last 19 years, I’ve felt the same way on the same day. That was the day I received the news that left me in a state of total disbelief. It was a cool, crisp fall morning and I was playing golf on the site of the season ending Tour Championship, Champions Golf Club in Houston, one of the most iconic courses in the country and home to the great Jackie Burke.
It was a glorious day which quickly took a turn for the worse when I news came that Payne Stewart’s plane wasn’t responding to any communication and shortly thereafter had crashed and there were no survivors.
Payne was a great golfer, a wonderful husband and father and someone I was proud to call a friend.
He won 11 times on the PGA Tour, including a PGA Championship and two U.S. Open Championships. His last U.S. Open win at Pinehurst took place only a few months before his death.
Back before Payne won his major championships, I established a nice relationship with him as I was covering golf for a national radio network. My friendship with Payne seemed to escalate tremendously due to two events. The first was a Blackjack game which was organized by Payne and the second was a very bold prediction made by Payne to me a year before it took place. Let me begin by sharing how the Blackjack game came to be.
I was covering the Tour stop in New Orleans which was one of my favorite places on the Tour. The week in question was extra special because a Southampton native, Bruce Zabriski, was in the field. One day while having lunch with Bruce, I noticed that the Tour was offering a charter flight to Augusta for those playing in the Masters the following week. Despite the fact that I had already purchased my flight from New Orleans to Atlanta, I thought flying on the players’ charter would be a cool thing to do.
Shortly after takeoff, Payne said he would be dealing some Blackjack and invited me into the game. So here I was playing against Payne who, by the way, had just earned $88,000 from the New Orleans tournament and to be honest, I have forgotten how little I had earned that week. It goes without saying that I was in way over my head. I just kept saying “I sure hope we land soon.” But I have to say, it was a cool, but costly, experience.
The second event was a bold prediction by Payne which took place at the 1998 U.S. Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco. Payne had a four-shot lead after the third round but he let it slip away as he played poorly down the stretch. It was my assignment to do the runner-up interview and to say that Payne was hot under the collar after blowing that lead would be a massive understatement. However, my confidence was buoyed by the fact that Payne’s mother would be with him during the interview. Yes, he was a true gentleman and much to my surprise, as I was wrapping up the interview, he said, “Bob, just one more thing. I will win the U.S. Open next year at Pinehurst.”
I thought Payne only chose to be that bold to make his mom feel better and honestly, when the next year came around at Pinehurst, I had totally forgotten that prediction until Payne was locked in a battle royal with Phil Mickelson. When Payne’s 15-foot putt on the 72nd hole found the bottom of the cup in that 1999 U.S. Open at Pinehurst, I realized his prediction from a year earlier had become a reality.
To have Payne pass away just a few months later was a very sad day. October 25, 1999, is a day I will never forget.
On a lighter note, some stats that came from Game Three of the World Series are worth mentioning.
1. During that 18-inning marathon, it was mentioned that in 1922 the Yankees and Giants played to a tie game that was called due to darkness.
2. Be thankful that you were not responsible for providing the over 300 game balls used in that seven-plus hour game. Your tab would have been over $6500.
3. The strangest factoid to come out of that epic game for me was the fact that it took longer to play that single game than it took to play than the entire 1939 World Series.
No doubt that 18-inning, seven-plus hour Game Three will be talked about for many years to come.