Payne Stewart didn't cry at his father's funeral, though he cannot tell you why. Lord knows his dad wouldn't have minded. After all, the man was an all-league weeper. He would cry at most anything emotional. He once cried when Payne's junior high team won a basketball game. The guy could get misty over a crisply struck five-iron. And his son was a chip (and a putt) off the old block. They had the same 64-crayon taste in clothes, the same baby-soft hands around golf greens, the same stone-jawed thirst to stomp the other guy at whatever sport was handy. Even when Payne was 25th on the PGA money list, and his dad was 62 and beginning to feel the symptoms of a disease he didn't yet know he had, the old man refused to ask for strokes. Beat him sometimes, too.
Like his father, Payne wasn't afraid to taste the salt of his own tears. He had cried when he won his first big tournament and he had cried when he blew his first one, too. Which is what made his tearless performance at the funeral two years ago so unlikely. Here lay his cohort, his coach, his confidant, his cardigan confessor, his loving antagonist, his role model. And Payne couldn't produce even a single tear to mark his father's grave.
What was missing?
Could've been a pro himself, Bill Stewart, but "he just couldn't see being away from the family," says his wife, Bee. So he just kept on selling box springs out of Springfield, Mo., and winning state amateur titles. That is, until he got older. Then he won Missouri state senior titles and left the amateur championship to his son. That arrangement worked so nicely that one year, 1979, Bill won the senior amateur and Payne won the amateur.
May 17, 1987
We never found out how good Bill could've been, but we're finding out how good his son is, and that, if you tilt it just the right way, is like finding out about both of them. "Payne Stewart is this game's next great superstar," says Fred Couples. "I think he's the best we have on the Tour right now, and in a year I think we'll be saying the same thing."
"The man's game has no weakness," says Lee Trevino. "He's the next great player."
"Payne Stewart is the fiercest competitor on the Tour," says Mark Wiebe.
You may have caught Stewart's act on his weekly network series. Tune in on Sunday afternoons and you'll find him, regular as Face the Nation, a shamus in shrunken pants, snooping around the lead. In 13 tries this year, he has finished in the top 10 six times. Last year he had 16 top-10 finishes in 29 attempts and this year he has been at the top of the list of the Tour's leading scorers.
Seeing Stewart on Sundays has become paranoically routine for the rest of the Tour members. Buddy Gardner, for one, was leading the Houston Open this year when Stewart's name went up on the leader board. Gardner never looks at leader boards; his caddie does it for him.
"Uh-oh," his caddie said.
"What?" said Gardner.
"There he is again."
"You got it."
There was a day, however, when seeing STEWART. p., on the board brought more comfort to the leader than dread. His game was boffo but, alas, carried only a 71-hole warranty. On the 72nd it expired, as did Stewart.
Especially nettlesome was the state of Texas, where Stewart's performance has been only slightly better than Texaco's. At the 1984 Colonial he needed only a par on the 72nd hole to win. He made bogey and then lost in a playoff. In the 1985 Byron Nelson he needed only a bogey on the 72nd to win. He made double bogey. Not to worry. On the first playoff hole he needed only bogey to win again. He made double bogey and lost. At the 1986 Colonial he again lost in a playoff, to Dan Pohl, for heaven's sake.
Stewart suffered similar indignities at the glamour events. With a chance to win the 1985 British Open, he missed short putts on 8 and 9 on the last day and finished second. At the 1985 U.S. Open a final-round bogey at 18 ended his chances. And at the 1986 U.S. Open he led on Sunday until a short birdie chip spun madly out of the hole at 13, leaving him with a six-foot par putt, which he missed. His playing partner that day was Ray Floyd, who, seeing an opening, proceeded to win the championship. Stewart was found on the bottom of Floyd's cleats.
So the caddies began calling Stewart "Avis." And when he blew still another Sunday lead on the 16th hole at Pebble Beach this year and finished second, two guys in the gallery yelled, "Choker!" Stewart wanted to yell, "How much money did you chumps make this week?" but ground his teeth instead.
"I want to win," he says now, "but if I started turning down all these second-place checks, my banker would kill me." In fact, consolation checks were turning Stewart into a millionaire. In 1984 he set a record for money won without actually winning: $288,795. In '86 he smashed that record to second-place smithereens with $535,389. If he kept on losing like this, he could buy his own tour.
But to Tracey, his Australian-born wife, such checks were too big. After the TPC last year, Mr. and Mrs. Stewart were riding home with a 10th-place, $21,600 check sitting on the dash. "Well," he said. "Another top 10 check, huh, Trace?"
Wrong thing to say.
"You're so complacent with where you're at!" she exploded. "You're in your comfort zone! You're just happy with a good check and a top 10 finish! That isn't what your father would be telling you! Your father would be saying, 'Hey, you need to be out there winning!' He wouldn't accept that!"
So there it was—a punch square in the nose. And what hurt the most was, "I knew she was right."
Bill Stewart was aching. After 18 holes of golf he felt as if he had played 108. He would ask Bee to rub his legs and back and arms for hours at a time, but the next day he would be sorer still. After 15 months of doctors shrugging their shoulders, the Stewarts tried the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., where Bill was told he had multiple myeloma, an incurable form of bone cancer. The question was not if he would die, but how soon.
As Payne grieved, his thoughts turned inevitably to golf. Golf, his father and he were an inseparable threesome. From the way he dressed, to the way he putted, to the way he lived his life, the son was the father. The two of them had been on the golf course together from the time Payne was six months old. He began taking lessons from his father at four, caddying for him at six, beating him at 16. Across the bosom of Ma Bell, throughout Payne's Tour career, the two of them went meticulously over the day's round, divot by divot.
"Then on number 4," Payne would say, "I hit a good drive down the left side and blocked a six-iron right."
"How many times do I have to tell you? Don't get that darn hand turned over."
"I know. I know."
This was not Fred MacMurray and Chip. Father and son had their arguments. Payne had long hair for a while. His dad didn't like that. Payne smoked for a while. His dad didn't like that. Payne wore acupuncture needles in his ears to help him concentrate and relax. His dad wasn't at all sure about that.
Still, they loved each other immensely. "I think he lived some of his life through me," says Payne, "and I think I'm a part of him." Those who watched both Stewarts play say their games are nearly identical, though Payne's game is more fluid (Ben Crenshaw says Stewart has "the most beautiful turn in golf). His short game, one of the best on the Tour, is all Dad. Says Gardner, "Payne has the softest hands in golf."
"My dad told me you feel a shot," says Stewart. "You feel the line of a putt. You don't try to manufacture it." His putting stroke is his father's, drastically upright, with the heel of the blade an inch off the ground. "Everybody makes a big deal of it," says Stewart, "but, jeez, the way things are going, maybe a few more guys should try it."
Even Stewart's sartorial signature—knickers, $600 Italian shoes, Hogan cap—comes from his father, who loved brightly colored sport coats. They were often plaid, often acutely plaid, and sometimes he wore them with plaid pants. Bill stood out, and when you stood out, he always told Payne, "they'll remember who you are." For a salesman, it made sense. Same goes for a Tour pro.
While standing on a tee one day in 1982, Payne realized he wasn't standing out. "I was wearing red slacks with a white shirt and white shoes," he once recalled. "The guy on my left was wearing red slacks with a white shirt and shoes. The guy on my right was wearing red slacks with white shirt and shoes. I vowed right then I was not going to be another look-alike." A few weeks later he struck on the idea of wearing knickers, and when he won the Quad Cities while sporting his new pants, there was no turning back.
Imagine the abuse one receives upon entering the den of machismo that is a PGA Tour clubhouse while wearing pants that stop just below the knee, white hose, lavender snakeskin shoes with brass toe and heel plates, a watch with a lavender band (one of 13 bands, for every color scheme) and a jaunty cap. "Mostly when people yell at you they call you a fag," says Stewart. "But I think guys who downgrade the way I dress are jealous. They don't have the nerve to wear 'em [knickers]. They're afraid they'd catch too much heat from their buddies. But if you can't stand the heat...."
Stewart survived the hoots and catcalls and headed straight for the bank. So recognizable did he become in his plus fours that Head Sports Wear signed him to a deal a year ago, despite the fact that the company didn't even make knickers at the time. He now earns royalties on every pair Head sells. So linked with knickers is Stewart that when he goes to a restaurant in long pants, people don't recognize him.
He is, from head to toe, from tee to green, the image of his father. In February 1985, Bill Stewart was dying, and Payne wanted to give him something special. Two weeks before his father died, Payne flew to Springfield. His dad was comfortable only in the La-Z-Boy in the den, so he slept there. Bee moved a bed into the den so she could sleep there, too. That night Payne slipped into the room, certain his mother was asleep, and silently jiggled his father awake. His dad could barely speak, but Payne was sure he could hear him.
"Dad," he whispered. "I've got a secret. I don't want you telling anybody. It's a secret, O.K.? I'm gonna be a daddy."
Payne knew his father had heard him. He could tell by the size of the tears in his eyes. Then his father turned his head, put his mouth to his son's ear and said, "Don't buy expensive baby furniture. It just wears out."
Stewart left the funeral feeling disconnected. He could not release his emotions yet, but he didn't know why. Perhaps he had one thing more to give his father.
Sometimes you go all over the world trying to turn your life around, and then it happens in your own backyard. Stewart finally had his glory day at this year's Hertz Bay Hill Classic in Orlando. Payne and Tracey have their home just off Bay Hill's 12th hole.
He shot 69, 67, 63—and then it was Sunday. He put a full nelson on inadequacy and doubt, and fired a 65. It was as unflappable and unblemished a final round as the Tour has seen all year. The course was littered with objects quite handy for choking upon, but Stewart avoided them all. He also withstood the challenge of one David Frost, who never shot worse than 68, went 10 under the final two days—and lost by three shots. Stewart's and Frost's level of play was so exemplary that third place was eight shots behind second.
Avis wins hertz said the headline in the local paper. "When Payne won there, it put him over the hump," says Trevino. "I think he's gone now. There's no stopping him."
But before Stewart could go slay the world, he had one last duty. He donated his $108,000 first-place check to Florida Hospital in Orlando for the establishment of a house on the hospital's grounds for the relatives of cancer patients. Stewart says he wanted "to help other families go through what our family went through." He made the gift "in memory of my father and honoring my mother."
That was in mid-March. For two years he had wanted to dedicate a win and a check to his father, and for two years he had failed to live up to his intention. Now he had. He had repaid his father. He had repaid himself. Every step felt lighter.
In April, after the Masters, he came home to Springfield to have a talk. He took Chelsea, his 1½-year-old daughter, for a drive to the cemetery. Together they walked to the gravestone, and he told Chelsea about his father. Then he sat down on the grass. It was quiet.
"Well, Dad," he began, "we won Bay Hill. We got 'em now, Dad. We're gonna kick their ass now."
He talked for a while longer and then picked up Chelsea and walked back to the car. He hooked Chelsea into her car seat and buckled himself in. She gave him a funny look he hadn't seen before.
"It's all right, Chelsea," he said. "We were just talking with Granddad."
He knew perfectly well that Chelsea was just fine. The only tears in the car that day were, at last, his own.