The middle-aged woman was waiting at the 3rd tee of the ChampionsGate course outside Orlando last Thursday. She had a tournament program and a pen. When Aaron Stewart and his four pro-am partners pulled up in golf carts, she quickly thumbed to his photograph and handed him the program to sign. "Are you a golfer?" she asked the skinny 15-year-old kid, unsure of which player in the group was a pro. "No," Stewart said politely. "My father was a golfer." He could have been accused of understatement. Aaron is the son of Payne Stewart, the smooth-swinging, plus-fours-wearing, harmonica-honking Missourian who won three major championships and eight other PGA Tour events between 1982 and '99. Five years ago Aaron's dad died in a private-plane accident. Like a handful of other cultural icons who left us that way--Will Rogers, Glenn Miller, the Big Bopper, Otis Redding, Jim Croce, Thurman Munson, Ricky Nelson--Stewart endures in memory. Every year on Oct. 25, the anniversary of his death, a number of touring pros pay tribute to Payne by venturing out in colorful knickers and tam-o'-shanters.
This is an article from the Dec. 13, 2004 issue
Even so, it was startling last weekend to see the name STEWART on the scoreboard at the 10th Office Depot Father-Son Challenge. The Challenge, a popular Silly Season event, is a 36hole, two-man scramble open to any father-son combo in which the father has won at least one major championship. Aaron Stewart cracked this year's field when two-time U.S. Open champion Lee Janzen, a family friend, offered to be his partner. "I knew that Aaron would be playing in the tournament if his dad were alive," said Janzen, who got the idea from last year's pairing of Arnold Palmer and grandson Sam Saunders. "But I didn't say anything to Aaron until our entry was accepted. I didn't want him to get his hopes up and then not get to play."
The poignancy of the Janzen-Stewart pairing was not lost on the other fathers in the field. "We all miss Payne," said Larry Nelson, who with son Drew won the event with a record-tying total of 25 under par. "We all know if that tragedy hadn't happened, he'd be here with his son." There was also an eerie sense of déj√† vu as players, Tour staffers and the NBC crew televising the Challenge tried to absorb the news that Teddy Ebersol, the 14year-old son of NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol, had died earlier in the week in a Colorado charter-jet crash that left his father and older brother Charles injured. "My mom and I were watching TV on Sunday night and saw what had happened," said Stewart. "We knew how it felt--how sad it was and what the family is going through."
The circumstances made Aaron the son to watch last week. Payne's boy, we learned, is a popular sophomore at Orlando's Olympia High, where he takes college-level courses and fights for playing time on a golf team that recently finished second in the Florida 2A tournament. He lives with his Australian-born mother, Tracey, in the golf-mad Isleworth subdivision and practices most afternoons on the range at Isleworth Country Club. "Aaron has a lot of talent," said Olympia High senior Nicholas Donaldson, one of the school's top golfers and Aaron's caddie last week. "Sometimes he's a little stubborn and doesn't listen." Donaldson smiled at Aaron, who rolled his eyes. "But he believes in himself and is committed. He's very serious when he practices."
It is a seriousness that, like his father's, quickly dissipates in the company of friends. Janzen remembers playing in Tom Lehman's charity tournament in Minnesota some years ago when his hotel phone kept ringing, the caller claiming to be Charles Barkley and other celebrities. "I couldn't figure out who it was," Janzen said last week. "Turned out it was Aaron." Anyone wanting to return the needle can rib Aaron about his weight. "What do you weigh, a buck thirty-five?" a reporter asked him at ChampionsGate.
"Me?" Stewart rolled his bony shoulders. "One-eighty!"
Sartorially the son honored the father without infringing on his trademarks. Aaron debuted on Saturday in a pair of powder-blue Sansabelt slacks originally worn by Francisco Aleman of Argentina in the 1989 World Cup in Spain, accessorized with white shoes, a white sweater and a white cap with the letters UNC in Carolina blue. His game, for a few holes at least, leaned more toward earth tones--"I was a little nervous out there"--but he drove the ball well and made putts for birdie and eagle on the back side. At the end Aaron styled for Janzen and the TV cameras by smacking a 205yard four-iron from the right rough on the par-5 18th hole, the ball sliding eight feet past the hole after nearly dropping in for double eagle. ("It's the shot of the day," NBC's Roger Maltbie told Aaron in a greenside interview.) Neither Aaron nor Janzen could coax in the eagle putt, but their eagle-birdie-birdie finish salvaged an eight-under-par 64 and a first-round tie for seventh, four strokes behind Team Nelson.
Afterward Aaron got a laugh from reporters by speculating on what his dad would have said about his splendid four-iron. ("He would have said, 'At least you hit it in front of the crowd.'") As for Aaron's mother, who had watched him all day from a discreet distance--well, it's left to us to speculate. Tracey Stewart has granted few interviews since her husband's death, and she clearly didn't want to draw attention from her son. Still, you could read only positive things from her smiles at ChampionsGate, where her former life and future life seemed to converge in the routines of tournament golf. "She talked more about Payne today than I've ever heard her talk about him before," said author and family friend Richard Coop, who walked the course with Tracey. "Maybe this was good for her."
It was definitely good for her son, although the cameras, reporters and autograph seekers made him feel more like an entertainer than a schoolboy. "But it feels good," Aaron said. "I like it." The trick, he added, was to remember certain things his father had taught him: to treat others as equals, to win with humility, to lose with grace. Payne also bequeathed him a few golf tips, but Aaron admitted that his attention span as a 10year-old wasn't great. Pressed to recall a piece of his father's on-course advice, he frowned, pressed his lips together and raised an eyebrow. Finally, he brightened. "I remember one: 'When it's breezy, swing easy!'"
There were times, though, when fond remembrance had to give way to fresh tragedy. Actress Susan St. James, the wife of Dick Ebersol, went on NBC's Today on Friday morning. She said, "You know the saying, 'You're never supposed to bury a child?'" She looked into the camera. "To lose one and not another--you have to sob your brains out." St. James's words, as well as the film clips and photographs of Payne playing with Aaron that NBC ran with its tournament coverage, reminded the golfers in Orlando that their nomadic lives present risks that stay-at-home dads don't face. "We're all very aware of that; we're all vulnerable," said Nelson. "When this happened, I told my wife, 'It could have been us just as easy as them.'"
Perhaps Janzen was the player most aware of fate's arbitrary ways. His two U.S. Open victories, at Baltusrol in 1993 and Olympic in '98, came at the expense of Stewart, who was runner-up at both. Now Janzen was teamed with his friend's son, and the experience stirred up a lot of good feelings along with the sense of loss. "At Payne's memorial service," Janzen recalled, "everyone told a story like they were Payne's best friend. That was Payne. No matter who you were, he made you feel like he was your best friend."
Had there been a place for sentiment on the leader board, Janzen and Stewart might have won this year's Father-Son. As it was, they combined for a final-round 66 on Sunday and finished 14th. This time Stewart wore a bright-orange shirt at the insistence of his sister, Chelsea, a Clemson freshman, who had called him on Saturday night from school to grouse about his blue-man outfit. "I'm real proud of Aaron," Janzen said. "He got better and better as he went on. If I had played anywhere near the way I can, we would've had a shot."
The real news had come earlier in the week, when young Aaron confirmed that he will follow his father's example and take a crack at tournament golf. "I know it won't come easy," he said. "I've only been playing for three or four years, so I have a lot of catching up to do." He laughed. "I have to go back to school on Monday. That kind of sucks."
He sounded so much like his dad.