By Payne Stewart's Standards, the outfit he wore the other night at Comiskey Park in Chicago was drab. Gray trousers with orange-and-black piping, gathered below the knee. Black-and-white over-the-calf hose. Black shoes trimmed in orange and white. A black shirt with a gaudy orange-and-white logo splashed across the chest.
Stewart, the PGA Tour player from Springfield, Mo., who is famous for his neon knickers, matching caps and lizardskin shoes, looked uncomfortable in a practice uniform of the visiting Baltimore Orioles. He stood near the White Sox dugout before the game, watching some players sign autographs for fans at the railing. No one gave him a second look until a man in the crowd yelled to his friends, "Don't you know who that is? That's Payne Stewart, the golfer."
And then a hundred hands reached toward Stewart with programs and baseballs to sign. His cover was blown.
You assume it was the outfit, but maybe those fans didn't recognize Stew ail without his stoic face on—the expression he reserves for the aftermath of golfing kicks to the groin. A month ago a stunned Stewart watched as his imminent victory at the Memorial Tournament in Dublin, Ohio, went down the cup with Paul Azinger's amazing hole-out from a bunker on the final hole. Two weeks later, at Baltusrol in New Jersey, a disbelieving Stewart stood by as young Lee Janzen sank a miracle chip-in on the tournament's final day, denying the Knickered One his second U.S. Open title. In each case Stewart conducted himself admirably, praising the victor and shrugging off the vagaries of fate. Still, it's hard to look your best with all the blood drained out of your face and a bad case of Greg Norman's Disease.
There's no need for hushed tones when you broach the subject to Stewart, a 12-year Tour veteran. "I am disappointed, yes, because I haven't won this year," Stewart said last Thursday, after shooting 71 in the first round of the Western Open, at Cog Hill in Lemont, Ill. "But I've been beaten. I haven't beaten myself. At the Open I made only five bogies all week. And Paul beat me with an incredible shot." Clearly, Stewart doesn't want anybody to resurrect his old nickname, Avis, which he earned by finishing second 13 times and losing five of five playoffs in his first nine years on the Tour.
But as he prepares for next week's British Open, at Royal St. George, Stewart remains sanguine about his recent travails simply because they have been so much less testing than last year's travails. In 1992, Stewart—bearing his '91 Open victory at Hazeltine National like a grandfather clock strapped to his back—had his worst year since his rookie season, winning nothing, threatening no one and falling to 44th on the money list. He missed the cut at the Masters, wallowed in a 51st-place tie in the Open at Pebble Beach, tied for 34th at the British Open and finished in a dreary four-way tic for 69th at the PGA Championship.
Stewart dates his difficulties to Hazel-tine, where he beat Scott Simpson in an 18-hole playoff. With victories in two majors under his belt—he also won the 1989 PGA Championship when Mike Reid collapsed at the finish—Stewart began to fancy himself the sort of player who, like Jack Nicklaus, regards regular Tour events as mere tune-ups. Moreover, worried that he had a fundamentally unsound, if picturesque, loop in his swing, he tinkered with his classic stroke and tried swinging back and through on an ideal plane, as Nick Faldo does. Notoriously freewheeling (for example, Stewart used to walk around with acupuncture needles in his ears), he sought to put Tom Kite-like structure in his life. Discipline, schedules, attention to detail. He tried them all.
Naturally, he tied himself in knots. "I just got too conscious of my swing," he says, "and I couldn't play." He also got to the point where he was playing an event like Tucson National but thinking about Augusta National, and that didn't work, either, "I felt I could be better by doing these things," he says, "but I lost my focus."
These days Stewart is clearly back at the top of his game. He has played 20 tournaments since January—which is a lot—and although he hasn't won yet, he is fourth on the money list, at $810,524, and has three second-place, three third-place and 10 top-10 finishes. He leads the Tour's All-Around statistical category: he has moved up to No. 3 on the career money list, behind Kite and Tom Watson, with $6 million and change; and he has harvested enough Ryder Cup points to ensure his fourth straight appearance on the U.S. team later this summer. "He's got to feel great about this year," says former Masters champ Ben Crenshaw. "He put a lot of pressure on himself to make the team again, and he showed great character in doing so."
Is this a new Payne Stewart? Or the old Payne Stewart?
Definitely the latter. The long, classic swing is back. And so what if the club wanders a little outside the line on the backswing and drops back inside on the way down? The ball doesn't know. "He's such a consistent, solid ball striker," says second-year pro Phil Mickelson. "When he sets up to the shot, it just looks like it's going where he's aiming." At Cog Hill last week Stewart took aim with his driver at a barn at the end of the practice range and drilled shot after shot inside the door frame. "That's his version of the eruise missile going in," said a friend, watching from behind. Stewart, less effusive, hit a dozen or so crisp shots with a mid-iron and said only, "Good path."
Another sign that the Stewart of old is back came in May at the Southwestern Bell Colonial in Fort Worth, where he signed his second-round scorecard with no number in the box for the ninth hole. "Kind of a no-brainer," says one PGA Tour official about the incident, which got Stewart disqualified.
Stewart's take on it: "I'm just not a very structured person. Structure's not me."
Style is, though. With his swing and his period clothing, Stewart is an artist's conception of the American golfer, circa 1923—albeit in the color schemes of 28 NFL teams. And now that he is playing well again he restores some elegance to the game, a graceful counterbalance to the "grip it and rip it" kids and their "you daman!" followers.
The puzzling part of it: Stewart's eyes do not sparkle when he discusses the return of his skills. When he plays, he seems annoyed. At the Western, as a series of missed opportunities nudged him ever closer to the brink of the 36-hole cut, he cursed errant shots and kicked the turf in frustration. A magnet for autograph hunters, he signs dutifully but never smiles. Stewart's public face is a mask he dons to shield himself from the burdens of celebrity. He can be at ease only with friends and family.
Nor is he comfortable with the Payne portrayed by the media. "I say one thing and the media says something else," he complains. "The words are changed just a bit, but suddenly it's a whole different thing."
He is talking, of course, about Shoal Creek. Three years ago, when controversy raged over the selection of an all-white Alabama golf club to host the PGA Championship, Stewart seemed to make light of the issue. He was accused of being insensitive, callous and worse. He was held up for condemnation and ridicule.
"I said"—he bites off his words, his eyes hot with resentment—"I said, 'The guys in the locker room are making more jokes about it than anything else.' And it came out, 'Payne Stewart thinks Shoal Creek is a joke.' It made me out to be a racist. I'm not a racist.
"Another time, they ask me if Jack Nicklaus should be on the Ryder Cup team. I say, I don't know if Jack can handle 36 holes a day.' It comes out 'Nicklaus shouldn't be on the team.' The power that you writers have to influence people can ruin somebody. I got hate mail after Shoal Creek. And I'm not a hateful person."
Stewart's anger dissipates quickly. Sitting in front of his locker, he takes a new pair of shoes from a box, tries one on, laces it up and flexes his foot approvingly. Asked how the incidents have changed his relationship with the media, he shrugs. "I'm real tight with my answers now," he says. "I used to be pretty loose in the press room and tried to say funny things, but not anymore. It's a shame."
One wonders what Stewart's father would have advised, were he still alive. Bill Stewart, the two-time Missouri amateur champion, wore clothes every bit as bright as his son's, but in the father's case, personality and fashion did not clash. "He was personable," Payne says. "He'd walk into the Italian Gardens restaurant in Kansas City and sit at the big table near the door, where all the salesmen sit. He liked people."
At Comiskey Park last week, he was his father's son. He gave golf lessons to the ballplayers and gouged out a Comiskey divot with a Louisville Slugger. He look celebrity batting practice, gamely stroking grounders up the middle. White Sox slugger Frank Thomas needled him. Oriole stars Cal Ripken Jr. and Rick Sutcliffe tried to distract him by tossing balls atop the batting cage. And Stewart grinned.
If nothing else, the experience of the last two years has taught him the dangers of confusing image with substance. "I was trying to reach another level, to live up to this standard of the U.S. Open champion," he said last week, getting ready to leave for a week of British golf. "And you know what? I was probably already at the level I was trying to attain."