Last month I was lucky enough to be invited to play my first round at Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska, Minnesota. It was almost to the day, exactly 30 years since Payne Stewart held off Scott Simpson in an 18-hole sudden-death playoff round to win the 1991 US Open held at the course.It was the second of three majors Stewart would win in his career. His third would come at the 1999 US Open at Pinehurst. Four months after that victory he would perish in a tragic plane crash that would take the life of Stewart and five other passengers/crew. It was truly the saddest day in the history of golf.
Hazeltine National’s par-4 16th hole is bordered on the right from tee to green by the course’s namesake, Lake Hazeltine. The hole also contains a memorial plaque next to what is now known as “The Payne Stewart Bridge,” honoring the late champion. A birdie here in the ’91 playoff was the momentum shift that led to his 2-shot victory.
A Tragic Death Stops Play ThursdayThe first major championship Hazeltine National had hosted since 1970 started in the worst possible way, and it had nothing to do with scores or golfers. A 27-year-old man died after being struck by lightning on the 11th hole. The game of golf becomes unimportant real quick when something that tragic occurs, and the USGA decided to stop play in light of this absolutely terrible tragedy. Players would finish round one early Friday, leaving many with a lot of golf to play.
Payne on Top of the Leaderboard All Weekend.
Stewart led after the completion of every round and held a slim lead going into the weekend, one shot clear of three other golfers, including 1987 US Open Champion Scott Simpson. He would gain the stroke back on Saturday tying Stewart for the lead at -6.Both Stewart and Simpson would start Sunday’s final round 4 shots clear of their nearest competitors. Of players near the top, only Nick Price was able to shoot under par that day with a round of 71. The course was playing brutal.
Arguably the biggest shot of the tournament up to that point was Stewart’s mammoth par-saving putt on the aforementioned 16th hole. Decked out in his Miami Dolphins-themed outfit, he sank a 60-foot par putt to keep pace with Simpson. In a tournament as big as this and a course playing as tough as Hazeltine National that weekend, par putts are going to be the difference between winning and losing.
A 2 Stroke Lead with 3 Holes to Play: The Scariest lead In Golf.
After 15 holes Sunday, the score may have indicated that the advantage was with Scott Simpson. He walked to the tee at the 16th leading by two shots. It looked to be his day. He could almost taste his second major championship win.
Payne Stewart was having none of it. Wearing Minnesota Vikings purple and white, he knew that the last 3 holes could make or break any golfer’s score and Simpson had been having his difficulties on this stretch of holes the first three rounds.Both players hit long irons on the short but troublesome hole. Not hitting the fairway would most likely guarantee a player bogey or worse. Stewart blasted his drive right down the pipe…Simpson faltered, pulling his into the left rough with a terrible lie.
Stewart ended up missing his birdie putt, with Simpson predictably unable to save par from the rough and carding a bogey. Simpson’s lead was now down to a single stroke with two to play.
Simpson’s Mistakes Start to Pile Up.
The par-3 17th saw both players make par, with Stewart missing his short birdie putt by the slimmest of margins. I replayed that putt over and over, I still can’t believe it didn’t turn and fall into the cup. Payne was devastated. Now the difficult 18th was all that was left, and Simpson had to think a par or better wins him the championship.
Easier said than done, right? But don’t forget Simpson had been in this position before. His win at the 1987 US Open just 4 years earlier saw him hold off Tom Watson to win by 1 stroke. He knew what it was like to play under this type of immense pressure and come out on top.
With the momentum on his side, Stewart blasted a perfect drive to the middle of the 18th fairway. Simpson again pulled his drive into the left rough…buried and leaving him no shot at the green. After punching out onto the fairway his approach shot ended up short of the hole where he was able to 2-putt for bogey. Stewart pulled his birdie putt left and the ball went six feet past the hole. He then made his pressure-packed 6-foot par putt.
Everyone would need to book another night at their hotel, as the two would need to come back the next day and do it all over again. A sudden-death 18 hole playoff on Monday would determine 1991’s US Open Champion. All we knew is that it would be either Payne Stewart or Scott Simpson.
Deja Vu All Over Again.
For the second time in as many days, Scott Simpson led Payne Stewart by 2 strokes after 15 holes. That day, however, it was his putter that would fail him. After hitting his drive in the fairway his approach shot landed safely in the center of the green, leaving him a 30-foot birdie putt. This is a hell of a good position to be in…just not as good as Stewart’s, whose approach shot left him with 20 feet to the hole.
Then, in the blink of an eye, Simpson saw his lead disappear. Stewart AGAIN made a clutch putt on the 16th, this time for his first birdie in the previous 29 holes. Simpson then missed his short par putt, giving him the frustrating 3-putt bogey. For the second day in a row, Stewart saw the momentum shift his way prior to heading to the 17th tee.
“A Terrible Shot.”
Stewart hit a perfect shot into a back left pin placement on the par-3 17th, and he was already focused on his very makeable birdie putt. Simpson just wanted to put the ball in the center of the green, playing his normal right to left draw to the back-left pin. The last thing he wanted to do was pull it short left into the pond.
Simpson proceeded to make his worst swing of the entire tournament. Watching his shot drift left towards the water, he dropped his club in disgust and stood shaking his head in bewilderment. The ball took two bounces and landed in the water. Jack Nicklaus, who was in the broadcast booth, said it best:
“THAT….Was a terrible shot.” The Golden Bear does not mince words.
Payne would miss his putt and Simpson would minimize the damage after the water ball, getting up and down for bogey.
With the way Stewart was playing, it seemed very unlikely Simpson would be able to gain a stroke on the 18th unless he was able to birdie. However, the pressure got the best of him again. Simpson ended up with a crippling bogey, making Stewart’s last putt much less stressful.
Wearing his red, white, and blues, Stewart calmly knocked in his par putt and emphatically pumped his fist, one leg in the air. He was finally a US Open Champion.
Payne Stewart’s Legacy is about More than Just Knickers and Fist Pumps.
When I read the following story, I couldn’t believe it. After losing to Tom Kite in a playoff at the 1989 Tour Championship, Payne Stewart refused to shake Kite’s hand. This event, along with becoming a father, made him re-examine his life. He did not want to be known for this type of behavior and started immediately focusing on becoming a better person.
No one knows this quite like Phil Mickelson, who was 29 at the time of the 1999 US Open. He was on the losing end of an epic battle with Stewart the entire dramatic final round. He stood on the 18th green and watched Stewart make possibly the most famous putt in golf history.
After his tournament-winning 15-foot par putt went in the hole, Payne pumped his fist as only he could.
It was Fathers Day that Sunday in 1999 and after embracing his caddy, Stewart’s attention turned to Mickelson. It was well known that Phil and his wife Amy were expecting the birth of their first child at any moment. Phil had been carrying a beeper around the course to alert him if Amy went into labor. The beeper never went off, and Phil was able to be there for the birth of Amanda Mickelson two days later.
In the midst of his emotions, Stewart immediately went over to shake hands with his dejected competitor. But there was more that Payne wanted to do. He had a few words for Mickelson. The moment gave us the lasting image William Payne Stewart would want to be remembered by.
He grabbed Phil’s head as if he was going to lay a big smooch on him. But Payne looked directly into Phil’s eyes, fighting back his emotions and tears said to him:
“Good luck with the baby. You’re going to be a Father!“
Now THAT, folks, is what sports need more of.
Because in the end, it’s just a game.