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Getting to know Payne Stewart

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Ever since that final putt fell in Pinehurst in 1999, Payne Stewart’s memory has enjoyed mythical qualities. A man of complex charm, but many of us who grew up without him recognize only his Knickerbocker pants, his flat cap, and his W.W.J.D. covered wrist wrapped around that United States Open trophy.

I had a wonderful opportunity to play a round of golf with two men that know a lot about Payne. One through friendship and the other through journalistic research.

Lamar Haynes was Payne Stewart’s close friend and teammate on the SMU golf team. He’s full of stories about Payne from the good old days. Kevin Robbins is an author who just finished a new book on Stewart’s final year of life, set to release to the public for purchase this October. He works as a professor of journalism at the University of Texas but has also enjoyed an impressive career as a reporter and golf writer for over 20 years.

We met at Mira Vista Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas, to talk about Payne. Robbins is a solid golfer who spends time working on his game, which tells me a lot about his personality. He is one of us.  As for Haynes, the guy hasn’t lost much since those SMU golf team days. He can still swing it. Fantastic iron player. And both men are wonderful conversationalists. They offered a unique perspective on Stewart—the golfer I grew up idolizing but never really knew. There’s a good chance you don’t really know him, either. At least not the whole story.

“Most golf fans now know the story of his ’99 U.S. Open win,” Robbins said.  “What they don’t know is where he came from.”

Robbins’ book, The Last Stand of Payne Stewart: The Year Golf Changed Foreverchronicles Payne’s last year on earth with dramatic detail, covering his triumph at Pinehurst and the Ryder Cup at Brookline. And, of course, it tells the story of that tragic plane crash that took our champion from us. What the book doesn’t do is hide any of the blemishes about Payne’s life that have either been forgotten or pushed aside by brighter moments and memories.

“I thought that the other Payne Stewart books, while they have a place, they didn’t tell the whole story,” Robbins said.

The whole story, from what I read, was Payne being brash. A poor winner and sometimes a poor sport when he lost. He often said things he shouldn’t have said and then made those mistakes again and again.

“He had no filter,” remembered Haynes.  “Several close friends on tour had a hard time with him when he won his first Open. He didn’t take into account any of the consequences his words could create. He had a huge heart. Huge heart. But at times there was just no filter. But he grew a great deal over the last 2 or three years.”

It’s most certainly is a book about a change. A change in a man that was better late than never. But also a change in golf that began at the turn of the century and hasn’t really slowed down since.

“The 20 years since his death, to see the way golf has moved, what the tour looks like now,” Robins said.  “There was an evolution that was taking place in 1999 and we didn’t know how it would manifest itself. But now we do. So when you see Brooks Koepka hit a 3-wood in the US Open 370 yards, well that all really had its beginnings in 1998 and 1999. The Pro-V1 ball was being tested in 1999 and being rolled out in 2000. Fitness and equipment, sports psychology, nutrition. All of those things that a guy like Payne Stewart really didn’t have to pay attention to.”

But that change that occurred in Payne, culminating in his final year of life, is something worth learning. It’s a lesson for all of us. A guy on top of the world with still so much to fix. And he was fixing it, little by little.

“He was authentic,” Haynes said. “And he learned a lot later in life from his children. With their Bible studies. You saw a change in him. Very much. He had a peace with himself but he still would revert to his DNA. The fun-loving Payne. Raising children and being a father helped him tremendously.”

Payne was passionate about so many things in life but his children became a primary focus. According to Haynes, he would be so loud at his daughter’s volleyball games…yelling intensely at the referees…that they gave him an option: Either he wouldn’t be allowed to watch the games anymore or he needed to become a line judge and help out with the games. So, Payne Stewart became a volleyball line judge.

Lamar brought the head of an old Ram 7-iron along with him to show me. Damaged and bent from the crash, the club was with Payne on his final flight. He had it with him to show his guys at Mizuno as a model for a new set of irons. That Ram 7-iron belonged to Haynes and Payne had always adored the way it looked at address.

“Payne also used my old Mizunos the last year of his life,” Haynes said.  I had received the MS-4s 10 years earlier from Payne in 1989. They were like playing with a shaft on a knife. The sweet spot was so tiny on the MS-4. They made the MP29 and 14s look like game improvement irons. Payne used those. Then Harry Taylor at Mizuno designed him an iron, which later became the MP33. The 29 and 14s were very sharp and flat-soled. Well, Payne loved this old Ram iron set that I had.. He asked for my Ram 7-iron for Harry Taylor to model his new set. He liked the way it went through the turf. He had it with him on the plane. This is the club that started the MP33.”

It was Lamar Haynes, the man who seems to know just about everyone in the golf community, that set Robbins on this writing journey. Robbins had written one book previously: The story of the life of legendary golf coach Harvey Penick. But this book came a bit easier for Robbins, partly due to his experience, partly due to the subject matter, and partly because of Lamar.

“There’s a story here,” Robbins said. “With any book, you hope to encounter surprises along the way, big and little. And I did. I got great cooperation a long the way. Anybody I wanted to talk to, talked to me thanks to this guy Lamar Haynes.”

“Lamar said the first guy you need to talk to is Peter Jacobsen,” Robins said. “And I said ‘great can you put me in touch with him’ which became a common question to Lamar throughout the process.” Robbins chuckled.  “Literally 2 minutes later my phone rings. ‘Kevin, this is Peter Jacobsen here.'”

“Peter told me the story about the ’89 PGA championship in our first conversation. So literally in the first 10 minutes of my reporting effort, I had the first set piece of the book. I had something. Lamar made a lot happen.”

Lamar Haynes and Kevin Robbins

The book is not a biography, though it certainly has biographical elements to it. It is simply the story of Payne’s final year, with a look back at Payne’s not so simple career mixed in. The author’s real talent lives in the research and honesty. The story reads like you’re back in 1999 again, with quotes pulled from media articles or press conferences. Anecdotes are sprinkled here and there from all of Payne’s contemporaries. The storytelling is seamless and captivating.

“I was pleasantly surprised how much Colin Montgomerie remembered about the concession at the 1999 Ryder Cup,” Robbins said. “Colin can be a tough interview. He is generally mistrustful of the media. His agent gave me 15 minutes during the Pro-Am in Houston. This was in the spring of 2018. I met Colin on the 17th hole and he had started his round on 10. Just organically the conversation carried us to the fifth green. Just because he kept remembering things. He kept talking, you know. It was incredible. Tom Lehman was the same way. He said “I’ll give you 20 minutes” and it ended up being an hour and a half at Starbucks.”

The research took Robbins to Massachusetts, Florida, and Missouri—and of course, to Pinehurst. He met with Mike Hicks, Payne’s former caddie, there to discuss that final round. The two ended up out on Pinehurst No. 2, walking the last three holes and reliving the victory. It gives life to the story and fills it with detail.

“Part of what I hoped for this book is that it would be more than just a sports story,” Robbins said.  “More than just a golf story. The more I started thinking about where Payne began and where he ended, it seemed to me…and I’m not going to call it a redemption story although I bet some people do. People when they are younger, they have regrets and they make mistakes. They do things they wish they could take back but they can’t. So, what can they do? Well, they can improve. They can get better. That’s what Payne was doing with his life. He was improving himself. It was too late to change what he had done already. So what could he do with the future? He could be different.”

“It was accurate,” Haynes said.  “I had a tear when I finished it. I texted Kevin right afterward. I told him I couldn’t call him because I’m choked up so I texted him.”

So here’s two men who knew Payne Stewart, albeit in very different ways. They knew he was flawed in life but he got better. Was Payne Stewart that hero at Pinehurst, grabbing Phil Mickelson’s face and telling him the important thing is he’s going to be a father? Yes. But he was so much more than that. He was so much more than I knew before I read this book. Most importantly, Payne Stewart was always improving. A lesson for all of us, indeed.

If you want to hear more about my experience, tweet at me here @FWTXGolfer or message me on Instagram here! I look forward to hearing from you!

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Johnny Newbern writes for GolfWRX from Fort Worth, Texas. His loving wife lets him play more golf than is reasonable and his son is almost old enough to ride in the cart with dad. He is a Scotty Cameron loyalist and a lover of links style courses. He believes Coore/Crenshaw can do no wrong, TMB irons are almost too hot and hole-in-ones are earned, not given. Johnny holds a degree in journalism from Southern Methodist University.

16 Comments

16 Comments

  1. Bill Vaile

    Aug 23, 2019 at 9:08 am

    I had the pleasure of meeting Payne Stewart at his home course, Hickory Hills in Springfield, Mo. I was one of the contestants in the long drive contest and was not familiar with the course. I was unloading my clubs from my car but had no idea how to get to the clubhouse when he pulled up next to me in a cart to load his. I asked him for directions and he said hop in and you can ride with me. He asked if I was playing that day and I explained that I was there for the long drive contest and had intended to play but as it looked like it might rain my playing partner was not going to show. Believe it or not I just thought he was a local member and did not know who it was at this time as it was early in his career although he had won a few tournaments. That and obviously was not expecting to run into him there. I believe he had recently won the Quad Cities Open. He said he was going to the practice range to warm up after doing some stretching on the floor of the clubhouse and asked if I wanted to go warm up so I did. Long story short when he started warming up I never hit another shot as it was amazing to watch him smooth through some four irons and some wedges. I thought I was pretty good at the time but proof that if you think you are good go watch a good pro and it will bring you back to earth. Basically got to spend the the day with and around him, got to meet his dad Bill and remember it like it was yesterday. He was a practical joker, always had something up his sleeve and was a very nice and gracious man.

    How did I finally find out it was Payne Stewart? I hit a ball out of a fairway bunker from around 180 yds to within 5 ft. My cart partner said good shot and I said yes but not like that guy. He is a machine! I asked him if he was the club champion or ???? After the guy looked at me incredulously and after he had stopped laughing he said you don’t know who that is? that is Payne Stewart! All I knew up to then was that he was a very nice young man who was full of life and … pranks. Had a great day and a lifetime memory.

    I will never forget the day my brother called me knowing my brief history with him and told me to turn on the news as there was a pro golfer on a plane that was not responding and it was thought that it was Payne Stewart onboard. Another lifetime memory but a very sad one. Only had that one day with him but it was one day more than many have and I will never forget it.

  2. Howard Hayden

    Aug 22, 2019 at 9:48 pm

    Can’t wait to read your book. Saw Payne play Memphis a few times. Still watch videos of his swing hoping a sliver of his beautiful swing and rhythmic tempo will rub off. What a great loss.

  3. joro

    Aug 22, 2019 at 9:16 am

    Back in the 70s when Payne was playing on the Golden State Tour I made Woods at Cobra and made all Paynes Woods. He would come into the shop and we would talk about his game and where he wanted to go. He also used Leather grips and I would change them a couple of times a year. He was a good guy and really appreciated everything. Then one day he was gone to the Tour and I only saw him one time after that, but he was a good friend and nice person.

    I am glad he got his life in order when he got married, The game misses him, he was a true star.

  4. Brian C

    Aug 22, 2019 at 8:11 am

    Great to see this story posted this morning. Unfortunately, I picked up golf after Payne’s passing and didn’t have the opportunity to experience his impact on the game in real-time, but having transformed into a bit of a golf history buff, I can’t wait to read this book when it hits the shelves.

  5. Branden W

    Aug 22, 2019 at 12:14 am

    I learned the game of golf at 13. Payne Stewart was my favorite golfer. I grew up near Houston and was lucky enough to attend the Shell Houston Open a couple of times. In 1996, at the age of 19, I went to the SHO on a Thursday or Friday. I checked the tee times on the printed starter sheet and was able to follow Payne most of the day. On one particular hole, I actually got to interact with him. On the previous hole, he had made a putt, but only after the ball had swirled around once before falling in. I was standing right next to the tee box on the next hole. Being 19, I have no idea where I got the nerve, but I spoke up and said ‘Got kinda lucky on that last putt’. Payne, waiting to tee off, surprisingly responded to me. ‘Well, I got it out of the bottom of the cup. Doesn’t matter how it got there.’ I was shocked he had taken the time to respond. Later, after following him the rest of the round, I stood in line and got his autograph where he was signing as a rep for Top-Flite.
    I got a few autographs while walking around later that day, but the experience with my favorite golfer of all-time will always be a memory I’ll never forget.

  6. Tom Kelly

    Aug 21, 2019 at 11:38 pm

    In 1986 Greenwich Capital had a small golf outing at the Stanwich Club in Greenwich, CT. Payne Stewart was one of two professional golfer to play with a small number of people. At that time I was a competitive 2 handicap. After the conclusion of the round, about ten people are left having a beer or something and talking about golf. Payne Stewart jumps up and says “Let me show you!” So we walk out to a 150 yard marker on either the first or tenth tee and he starts hitting 8 irons. High 8 irons, low 8 irons, hooked 8 irons, sliced 8 irons, 135 yard 8 irons, 175 yard 8 irons… you get the drift. He was a truly classy person and a wonderful golfer.

    • Johnny Newbern

      Aug 22, 2019 at 2:17 pm

      Wow. What an experience. I’m jealous.

  7. Think About It

    Aug 21, 2019 at 9:38 pm

    Nothing wrong with a guy having little/no filter. Most people specially now days need a person like that in their life. Sometimes the truth hurts but if a person actually wants to grow there is greatness on the other side of that hurt.
    Payne was a great person and will always be missed. Great article and cant wait to read the book.

  8. Tom54

    Aug 21, 2019 at 5:21 pm

    I was always hoping that the Tour Championship would reward the top 29 players a spot in their final event. Why 29? Because sadly that is the number they had when Payne died in that plane crash and did not attend. Having everyone wondering about 29 being the number I thought would have been a way to always keep him in their thoughts forever

  9. 12th

    Aug 21, 2019 at 4:53 pm

    I played with Tom Meeks years after he retired from the USGA. Of course everyone knows the story of Olympic and 98. Tom told me that Payne called him the next day and let him have it good for the hole location on 18. Over the course of 1999, Tom and him became good friends. The controversy turned into a great friendship. After Payne won in 99, Tom called him and asked two things. 1. Could he have the putter that Payne used. That was the first true SeeMore putter. Payne told him that he would send him one. 2. Tom asked to have the sleeves that Payne cut off of the pullover that he used in the final round. The first ever short sleeve pullover. Payne told him, “No way.” Payne dies in October and about a week or so later, Tom finally received that putter.

    Joel Edwards and I are good buddies and he said that not a lot of people knew that Payne smoked, and smoked a lot early on. He used to steal cigarettes from Joel’s bag constantly. Joel would be warming up on the putting green, then turn around and see Payne diving in his bag for a few cigarettes.

  10. Mike

    Aug 21, 2019 at 4:17 pm

    I played Mountain Top, Buffalo Ridge and Ozark National this weekend and we just kept staring down at the flat land where Payne’s Valley is taking shape. I think it’s going to be the best course of all of Bass Pro’s holdings and I think they planned for it to be that way.

  11. Marc Miller

    Aug 21, 2019 at 4:09 pm

    I had heard that another book was coming out about Payne Stewart. I am so glad the man is not forgotten. I never had the pleasure of meeting him or interacting with him, but his life impacted mine in numerous ways. Thank you for this book. I look forward to reading it.

    • Johnny Newbern

      Aug 21, 2019 at 4:40 pm

      I think you are really going to enjoy it!

  12. Tommy V

    Aug 21, 2019 at 4:00 pm

    I met Payne at a course in Springfield, MO on Thanksgiving Day 1998. He was going off the front 9 with 6 others including his son and his dad and at least 1 other junior player. We were making the turn and drove over to the tee to see him hit. It was very cold. Payne immediately stopped and told us to play through as we were a 2some. When I explained my reason for coming over, he went into this big production about how it was cold and he hadn’t hit any balls and went over the top with excuses in a funny way. He hit a pure smooth 3 wood right down the middle. Not wanting to intrude any more, we drove off right away. He yelled us down “Hey!! Well!!! How was that?” I laughed and said it was great. The 1st and 10th greens were next to each other and I went over and asked him to autograph my card. He was very gracious and wrote “Happy Thanksgiving, Payne Stewart” It’s a cherished momento of mine, one of the few autographs I’ve ever asked for.

    • Johnny Newbern

      Aug 21, 2019 at 4:41 pm

      What a great memory, Tommy. I am so glad you have that experience to keep forever.

  13. Carroll Strange

    Aug 21, 2019 at 3:15 pm

    Johnny is also my grandson-in-law. He is a fine golfer, wonderful father and husband and all-around good guy!

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Flatstick Focus: Putter makers to check out (Part 1)

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In Episode 16, we discuss some putter makers we think you should check out before ordering your first (or next) custom wand.

Check out the full podcast on SoundCloud below, or click here to listen on iTunes or here to listen on Spotify.

Want more GolfWRX Radio? Check out our other shows (and the full archives for this show) below. 

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The Gear Dive: Discussing the drivers of 2020 with Bryan LaRoche

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In this episode of The Gear Dive, Johnny chats with his good buddy Bryan LaRoche. They chat on life and do a deep dive into the drivers of 2020.

Check out the full podcast on SoundCloud below, or click here to listen on iTunes or here to listen on Spotify.

Want more GolfWRX Radio? Check out our other shows (and the full archives for this show) below. 

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The Wedge Guy: The 5 indisputable rules of bunker play

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I received a particularly interesting question this week from Art S., who said he has read all the tips about how to hit different sand shots, from different sand conditions, but it would be helpful to know why. Specifically, here’s what Art had to say:

“I recently found myself in a few sand traps in multiple lies and multiple degrees of wetness. I tried remembering all of the “rules” of how to stand, how much to open my club, how much weight to shift forward or back, etc. based on the Golf Channel but was hoping that you might be able to do a blog on the ‘why’ of sand play so that we can understand it rather than memorizing what to do. Is there any way you can discuss what the club is doing and why you open the club, open your stance, what you’re aiming for when you open up, and any other tips?”

Well, Art, you asked a very good question, so let’s try to cover the basics of sand play–the “geometry and physics” at work in the bunkers–and see if we can make all of this more clear for you.

First of all, I think bunkers are among the toughest of places to find your ball. We see the tour players hit these spectacular bunker shots every week, but realize that they are playing courses where the bunkers are maintained to PGA Tour standards, so they are pretty much the same every hole and every week. This helps the players to produce the “product” the tour is trying to deliver–excitement. Of course, those guys also practice bunker play every day.

All of us, on the other hand, play courses where the bunkers are different from one another. This one is a little firmer, that one a little softer. So, let me see if I can shed a little light on the “whys and wherefores” of bunker play.

The sand wedge has a sole with a downward/backward angle built into it – we call that bounce. It’s sole (no pun intended) function is to provide a measure of “rejection” force or lift when the club makes contact with the sand. The more bounce that is built into the sole of the wedge, the more this rejection force is applied. And when we open the face of the wedge, we increase the effective bounce so that this force is increased as well.

The most basic thing you have to assess when you step into a bunker is the firmness of the sand. It stands to reason that the firmer the texture, the more it will reject the digging effect of the wedge. That “rejection quotient” also determines the most desirable swing path for the shot at hand. Firmer sand will reject the club more, so you can hit the shot with a slightly more descending clubhead path. Conversely, softer or fluffier sand will provide less rejection force, so you need to hit the shot with a shallower clubhead path so that you don’t dig a trench.

So, with these basic principles at work, it makes sense to remember these “Five Indisputable Rules of Bunker Play”

  1. Firmer sand will provide more rejection force – open the club less and play the ball back a little to steepen the bottom of the clubhead path.
  2. Softer sand will provide less rejection force – open the club more and play the ball slighter further forward in your stance to create a flatter clubhead path through the impact zone.
  3. The ball will come out on a path roughly halfway between the alignment of your body and the direction the face is pointing – the more you open the face, the further left your body should be aligned.
  4. On downslope or upslope lies, try to set your body at right angles to the lie, so that your swing path can be as close to parallel with the ground as possible, so this geometry can still work. Remember that downhill slopes reduce the loft of the club and uphill slopes increase the loft.
  5. Most recreational golfers are going to hit better shots from the rough than the bunkers, so play away from them when possible (unless bunker play is your strength).

So, there you go, Art. I hope this gives you the basics you were seeking.

As always, I invite all of you to send in your questions to be considered for a future article. It can be about anything related to golf equipment or playing the game–just send it in. You can’t win if you don’t ask!

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