Biography of Golfer Payne Stewart

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Payne Stewart was a colorful dresser and a major golf championship winner in the 1980s and 1990s whose life was cut short in a plane crash. Stewart came onto the PGA Tour in the early 1980s with a brash attitude that struck some as arrogance. But by the end of his career—a career that included 11 PGA Tour victories, three of which were majors—Stewart was a respected voice in golf, much-liked by fans and his fellow pros.

Fast Facts: Payne Stewart

  • Occupation: Golfer
  • Born: January 30, 1957 in Springfield, Missouri, USA
  • Died: October 25, 1999 in South Dakota, USA
  • Education: Southern Methodist University
  • Key Accomplishments: Winner of 11 PGA Tour tournaments, including three major championships (1989 PGA Championship and the 1991 and 1999 U.S. Open)
  • Spouse’s Name: Tracey Ferguson
  • Children’s Names: Chelsea, William

Early Golf Success

Growing up in Missouri, Stewart learned golf from his father, who played in the 1955 U.S. Open. Payne went on to much amateur success and played college golf at Southern Methodist University.


He turned pro in 1979, but failed to make it through Q-School qualifying. So Stewart went overseas, winning a couple times on the Asian Tour. He returned to America after two years and this time played his way onto the PGA Tour.

Soon, a stroke of marketing genius turned Stewart into a star.

David Cannon/Getty Images

Stewart first dressed in knickers for a golf tournament early in 1982. The fans liked it, so he wore them again at the 1982 Quad Cities Open for what turned out to be his first win on the PGA Tour. His style of dress was entrenched after that: an old-style get-up consisting of colorful knickers or plus-fours and colorful socks, along with a tam o’shanter on his head. Stewart always stood out on the course.


Over the latter part of his career, Stewart had an endorsement deal with the NFL and dressed in the team colors of the NFL squad nearest the location at which he was playing.

Stewart’s first PGA Tour victory happened at the 1982 Miller High Life QCO. He won again in 1983, but then not until 1987. From that point through 1995, Stewart won eight more times. His best finish on the money list was runner-up in 1989, when he won twice. Stewart finished third in earnings in 1986 and 1990.

Following three years without a victory, Stewart’s final season of 1999 included two wins.

The complete list of Stewart’s PGA Tour wins is as follows:

  • 1982 Miller High Life QCO
  • 1983 Walt Disney World Golf Classic
  • 1987 Hertz Bay Hill Classic
  • 1989 MCI Heritage Golf Classic
  • 1989 PGA Championship
  • 1990 MCI Heritage Golf Classic
  • 1990 GTE Byron Nelson Golf Classic
  • 1991 U.S. Open
  • 1995 Shell Houston Open
  • 1999 AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am
  • 1999 U.S. Open

Major Championships and the Ryder Cup

Earlier in his career, before he started winning with more regularity toward the back-end of the 1980s, Stewart had a reputation as a golfer whose achievements didn’t match his talent.

That changed in a big way when Stewart won his first major championship, the 1989 PGA Championship. That was Stewart’s 11th Top 10 finish in a major, which included a runner-up showing at the 1985 British Open.

Stewart was runner-up at the Open Championship again in 1990 before winning his second major at the 1991 U.S. Open. That major he won in an 18-hole playoff against Scott Simpson.


Payne Stewart celebrates the winning putt at the 1999 U.S. Open.
Tom Able-Green/Getty Images

Stewart had another pair of second-place finishes in the U.S. Open, in 1993 and 1998, before earning his third and final major championship victory.

At the 1999 U.S. Open at Pinehurst Resort, Stewart was paired with Phil Mickelson in the final round. Stewart and Mickelson shared the second-round lead, then Stewart took a one-stroke lead following the third round. In the final round, the two golfers matched 70s, giving Stewart the one-stroke win.

The victory was punctuated when Stewart holed a 15-foot par putt—the longest ever made on the final hole to win a U.S. Open—on the last hole. In celebration, Stewart thrust his fist into the air while kicking his leg out behind him. It has become an iconic pose, one now enshrined in a bronze statue at Pinehurst.

Stewart played on five U.S. Ryder Cup teams (1987, 1989, 1991, 1993 and 1999). He played 19 matches with an overall record of eight wins, nine losses and two halves. Stewart posted winning records in 1991 and 1993, both Team USA victories.

In 1999, Stewart was winless in three matches. But he was still on the course in his singles match vs. Colin Montgomerie at the time Justin Leonard’s famous winning putt dropped, completing a then-record comeback by Team USA. With the crowds frenzied, and having watched Montgomerie suffer abuse from the fans throughout the match, Stewart, in an act of sportsmanship, picked up Monty’s ball and conceded the match, bringing that Ryder Cup to a close.


There is little question Stewart would eventually have served as captain of Team USA in a Ryder Cup, had his life not been cut short by a tragic plane crash.

Deadly Plane Crash

On Oct. 25, 1999, Stewart boarded a private LearJet for a scheduled two-hour flight from his home in Orlando to Houston for the Tour Championship. A little more than four hours later, the jet crashed into a field near Mina, South Dakota. All five people on board perished.

Approximately 14 minutes after takeoff, as the plane climbed and was due to make a westward turn toward Texas, air traffic controllers contacted the plane but received no response. Several more attempts over the next several minutes also went unanswered.

An F-16 fighter jet pulled alongside and tried to contact the crew. There was no response and the windows of the LearJet were fogged over.


In an alarming scene that played out on television news channels, the plane continued to fly on autopilot, northwestwardly across the south and then middle America. Air Force pilots were authorized to shoot it down if it appeared to be heading for a populated area, but the plane finally ran out of fuel and crashed in an empty field.

An investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board determined that within minutes of takeoff, the plane, for unknown reasons, lost cabin pressure. The pilot and four passengers quickly lost consciousness. All were dead from lack of oxygen long before the plane hit the ground.

Stewart’s death in a plane crash happened 33 years after another golf major championship winner, Tony Lema, died in a plane crash in Illinois.

Legacy

At the 1999 Tour Championship—the tournament to which Stewart was traveling at the time of his death—all the golfers wore plus-fours during the final round as a tribute to Stewart. A year after Stewart’s final victory, 21 of his friends opened the 2000 U.S. Open by simultaneously hitting shots into the ocean at Pebble Beach—a 21-ball salute.


The Payne Stewart Statue at Pinehurst Resort in North Carolina.
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Twenty years after his death, Stewart remains a well-known figure to new generations of golfers. A statue of Stewart stands at Pinehurst, showing his famous winning pose from the 1999 U.S. Open. Additionally, since 2000, the PGA Tour has presented the Payne Stewart Award to golfers who “(share) Stewart’s respect for the traditions of the game, his commitment to uphold the game’s heritage of charitable support and the professional and meticulous presentation of himself and the sport through his dress and conduct.”

Stewart was elected to the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2001, and in 2009 The Payne Stewart Golf Club was dedicated in Stewart’s home state of Missouri. “In the end it’s still a game,” Payne Stewart once said, “and if at the end of the day you can’t shake hands with your opponent and still be friends, then you’ve missed the point.”

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