Playing With Payne Coming to grips with the death of Payne Stewart cast a pall over Tiger Woods's win at the Tour Championship

November 08, 1999

Last Thursday in Houston a silence as thick as the early-morning
fog hung over the somber crowd gathered at the 1st tee of the
Champions Club. A lone bagpiper, unseen in the distance, broke
the eerie spell with the first notes of the mournful Scottish
tune Going Home. As the piper slowly marched toward the
assembly, his music grew louder, and then, as if on cue, he
appeared in the drifting mist. When the piper had finished, an
emotional memorial service was held for Payne Stewart, who along
with five others had died three days earlier in a plane crash.
Twenty minutes later the most unforgettable Tour Championship
ever began, or tried to.

The week was filled with a chaotic mix of shock and sadness,
respect and regret, remembrances and celebrations, tears and
toughness. The actual competition was equally unbalanced: The 29
golfers in the elite field--Stewart's spot was not filled--played
27 holes on both Thursday and Saturday so that they could attend
Stewart's memorial service in Orlando on Friday. In the end the
only thing about the event that seemed normal was that Tiger
Woods was the guy who won it. Woods's victory, by four strokes
over Davis Love III, was his third straight and seventh on Tour
this year, the most in a season since Johnny Miller won eight
times in 1974.

Until Sunday, though, the golf was an afterthought. The news of
Stewart's death on Monday, Oct. 25, had hit the Tour hard.
Commissioner Tim Finchem was on a teleconference call announcing
that Buy.com had taken over as sponsor of the Nike tour when he
was told that something was dreadfully wrong aboard Stewart's
Learjet. David Duval heard about a plane flying aimlessly on
autopilot, its passengers presumably dead or unconscious, as he
was having lunch at the Champions Club, but he didn't know that
Stewart was thought to be on it until he crossed the room to
sign in for the tournament and a volunteer told him. Jeff
Sluman, at home in Chicago, fielded calls from concerned
friends. "They knew I had been in Orlando the day before, and
since at that point nobody knew who was on the plane, they were
calling to see if I was home," Sluman said. "It was terrible
watching it unfold, praying and hoping it wasn't somebody you
knew."

Andy Martinez, Tom Lehman's caddie, was about to board a flight
from Dallas to Houston when he learned that the wayward jet in
the news was co-owned by Stewart and that it would crash when
its fuel ran out. "I wobbled onto the plane," Martinez said. "I
was woozy." Brian Sullivan, who caddies for Jeff Maggert, was at
Champions walking off yardages with Stewart's caddie, Mike
Hicks, when Hicks's cell phone rang. According to Sullivan,
Hicks kept repeating "Oh, my god" and then ran off the course.
"I knew then it was serious news," Sullivan said.

The Tour made the pro-am on Oct. 26 optional for the players,
yet more than 20 of them showed up anyway and played at least
some holes with the amateurs who would have been their partners.
Woods played all 18, saying that getting on the course helped
him take his mind off the tragedy. The atmosphere, however, was
surreal. "When we got to the course, it was so silent," Woods
said. "It was eerie--nobody was asking for autographs or
clamoring for pictures. It was real quiet. Even on the range
guys were hitting and nobody was talking." In the players'
parking lot next to the clubhouse, a ribbon was placed on the
spot assigned to Stewart. Soon, a shrine of flowers, signs and
messages adorned the empty space, to which fans were drawn all
week.

There was talk of canceling the event before Tour official Ben
Nelson came up with the idea of playing 27 holes on Thursday and
Saturday and leaving Friday open. Some players who attended
Thursday's emotional memorial wondered if they would be able to
handle a funeral, too. Soon after the service, which was held on
the 1st tee, Justin Leonard asked Love when he was going to
leave for Orlando. "I might go in a little while," he replied.
Said Fred Funk, "The service was as much emotion as I've ever
felt. I couldn't stop crying. Jeff Sluman asked me, 'If we
couldn't deal with this, how are we going to deal with the
funeral?'"

On the course the players seemed to be going through the
motions. Love was the only player to break 100 over the 27 holes
on Thursday, shooting a seven-under 99 to take a one-shot lead
over Woods, and fought his emotions every step of the way. "I
had a tough time gathering up enough emotion to even play," Love
said. "I hit a beautiful six-iron shot off the dirt at the
14th--a great shot--but you know what, I didn't care. Part of me
said we shouldn't be playing and the other part said we needed
to be out there. I chastised myself every time I had fun or got
excited. It was a crazy range of emotions."

Leonard said he was on the verge of tears several times during
his round, and Love got so choked up when he saw an airplane
circling the course with a banner reading WE WILL REMEMBER YOU,
PAYNE that he had to wait several minutes to attempt a short
putt. "That's when it really hit home," he said. "You shouldn't
be out there playing golf with tears in your eyes."

All the players paid tribute to Stewart in one way or another.
Matt Griesser, the actor who plays Sign Boy in the FootJoy
commercials, wrote Stewart's initial's on Love's hat. Love also
carried a swatch of tartan cloth and some sand from Iwo Jima
that a patriotic fan had given to the members of the U.S. Ryder
Cup team. Many players wore black ribbons. Duffy Waldorf, who is
known for the colorful markings he puts on his golf balls,
instead wrote inscriptions about Stewart on them.

No one made a more dramatic statement than Bob Estes. Dressed in
black, Estes hit his opening tee shot with a putter, tapping his
ball about 15 feet--symbolic, he said, of Stewart's winning putt
of the same length on the final hole of this summer's U.S. Open.
Estes, who made a double bogey on the hole, caught everyone by
surprise, even his playing partner, Brent Geiberger. "I had a
hard time hitting after what Bob did," said Geiberger. "He felt
that he needed to do that for Payne. I thought it was nice."

Estes later caught flak from some other pros, among them Nick
Price, who said a more meaningful gesture would have been to
birdie the hole, but Estes stood his ground. "I wasn't trying to
draw attention to myself," he said. "I had so much emotion on
the 1st tee, I wanted people to know how much Payne meant to us."

Attending the service in Orlando on Friday morning and then
returning to Houston that evening made for a long day for the
players, but Woods, who lives in Orlando, took the opportunity
to stop by his house and pick up his backup sand wedge because
on Thursday he had destroyed the head on his original wedge
while hitting a foolhardy shot. On the 411-yard par-4 15th hole,
his 24th of the day, he pushed his tee shot, and it lodged next
to a tree, flush against a rock the size of a driver head.
Instead of incurring a penalty by taking a drop, Woods opted to
swing through the rock. He succeeded in advancing his ball about
20 feet and irritating the nerves in his left wrist, arm and
shoulder, giving himself a stinger that caused him to wince in
pain on every full shot for the remainder of the round. The good
news was that the day off did wonders for Woods, and on Saturday
he returned at 100% to take control of the tournament, finishing
that day's 27 at 13 under par to build a three-stroke lead over
Chris Perry, his closest pursuer.

On Sunday, before golf again became the primary focus, most of
the players made one last gesture to honor Stewart by donning
knickers for the final round, something they had debated doing
earlier in the week. "I was against it at first," said Love,
"but today I told Tom Lehman, 'This just feels right.'" Stuart
Appleby went so far as to borrow an outfit from Stewart's own
closet and, thus attired, bore an unsettling resemblance to its
owner.

What began as another day to remember Stewart, ended as another
day to marvel at Woods. The top-ranked player in the world for
29 out of 43 weeks this year, he leads the Tour in seven of its
13 statistical categories and, scariest of all, is 23 and only
getting better. "I haven't seen anybody have a year like this
since I've been out here," says Love. "Nick Price was the
closest; then you'd have to go back to Jack Nicklaus. I said the
first couple of years he was here that he was not even close to
how good he could get. We are starting to see that now. He is
clearly head and shoulders above the rest of us."

When he has gone into the final round either tied for or in the
lead, Woods has won 11 straight times and lost only once. As
closers go, he is golf's answer to Mariano Rivera, and on Sunday
he made two birdies in his first nine holes to eliminate any
suspense.

Still, his dominating performance, as remarkable as it was,
wasn't what everyone will remember about the most mixed-up Tour
Championship ever. The message of the week was sent by Stewart.

"We are reminded how short life really is, and how we are just
passing through," said Hal Sutton. "So all the people you
haven't told you love lately, tell them, and live your days like
you mean it."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JIM GUND Seven and counting If Woods wins this week in Spain, he'll be the first player in a quarter century to win eight times in a season. COLOR PHOTO: JIM GUND In his honor Fans quickly turned Stewart's parking space (above) into a shrine, while Appleby waited to make a fashion statement. COLOR PHOTO: DARREN CARROLL [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: RICHARD CARSON/HOUSTON CHRONICLE Rocked Woods's injury could have been much worse.

With seven victories and $5.6 million in earnings, Tiger Woods
has left no doubt as to who's the man on the PGA Tour in 1999.
The question is, how does his year stack up against the best
seasons ever? One way to find out is to rank the leading money
winners according to their percentage of purse (POP) number. To
determine POP, we took each year's top earner and divided his
winnings by the prize money available in the events he entered.
Here are the top 10 seasons, based on POP, since 1960. (P.S. If
Woods wins this week, he will move up to seventh, with a POP of
11.24.)
TOP SCORING
AGE EVENTS WINS MAJORS 10s AVG. POP
1. Jack Nicklaus, '72 31 19 7 2 14 70.23 15.77
2. Arnold Palmer, '63 33 20 7 0 14 70.63 13.48
3. Jack Nicklaus, '71 30 17 5 1 15 70.08 12.73
4. Jack Nicklaus, '75 34 16 5 2 14 69.87 12.04
5. Jack Nicklaus, '73 32 18 7 1 16 69.81 11.96
6. Johnny Miller, '74 26 21 8 0 12 70.10 11.73
7. Arnold Palmer, '62 32 21 7 2 13 70.27 10.62
8. Tiger Woods, '99 23 20 7 1 15 69.56 10.02
9. Jack Nicklaus, '76 35 16 2 0 11 70.17 8.91
10. Jack Nicklaus, '65 24 20 5 1 17 70.09 8.89

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)