Last week, Kenny Perry was given the Payne Stewart award for his contributions to the game on golf. “We can’t imagine a more deserving recipient than Kenny Perry,” Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said in a statement. Perry donates 5% of his tournament winnings to a scholarship fund at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee. In 1995, Kenny Perry also bought 142 acres of land and borrowed more than $2.5 million to design and build the only public course in his hometown of Franklin, Kentucky. In reaction to receiving the award, regarded as one of the game’s greatest honors, Perry said “There is no greater honor for a professional golfer than to receive the Payne Stewart Award. Payne personified all the virtues the game of golf can teach us so being recognized as a person who is worthy of an award created in his memory is incredibly humbling. This award is and will always be one of my greatest accomplishments.” The award is given to a player who shows respect for the traditions of the game, commitment to uphold the game’s heritage of charitable support and professional and meticulous presentation of himself and the sport through his dress and conduct.
William Payne Stewart certainly embodied the qualities that his award is given for. Stewart always presented himself in a professional and classy way. He made it a point to treat people with respect and kindness, and was always a hugely popular player and personality because of it. Payne had a great attitude about his career, which went far beyond playing golf for a living. Payne donated his time to the fans and charities in his community and at numerous tour venues all over the world. He was an ideal ambassador of the game, and his trademark attire was a tribute to the grand history and traditions of golf.
When Payne Stewart walked to the first tee in the 1982 Georgia Pacific Atlanta Classic, his playing partner Lee Trevino did a double-take. Stewart, for the first time in PGA Tour competition, was wearing plus-fours with a Tam O’Shanter hat and matching argyle knee socks. Always the comedian Trevino said, “I thought you were going to a golf tournament, not a kindergarten fashion show.” Trevino later recognized this as a savvy and brilliant marketing ploy, and Stewart became famous for his tournament fashion. His classic flowing golf swing was also throwback to the golden age of golf, but his tenacious and dogged perseverance was second to none in the modern era.
Anyone who played against Payne Stewart was in for a hell of a fight, and he showed his class both in victory and defeat. During the 1999 Ryder Cup, Payne Stewart and Colin Montgomerie came to the final hole of their match all square. The Ryder Cup had already been secured by the Justin Leonard bomb against Jose Maria Olazabal and Stewart, having already witnessed unruly American fans taunting Montgomerie all day, conceded a 20 foot birdie putt on 18 to give Montgomerie a one up win. That same year at the US Open Payne Stewart sunk a 15 foot par putt on the final hole to defeat Phil Mickelson. As the two competitors came together on the green, he took Phil Mickelson’s face in his hands, looked him straight in the eyes and told him that what he was about to experience was much more important than what he had just lost. The next day, Amy Mickelson gave birth to their first child.
My own personal experience with Payne Stewart will always be cherished. Working in the golf industry has afforded me some great opportunities for access to the game on a level many people never experience, and one of those opportunities came in the form of clubhouse passes to the 1998 Players Championship at the TPC Sawgrass. I went to the golf course early in the week to try and see some of the practice rounds, as this is sometimes the best way to get up close to the players because there are few spectators and the players are relaxed and not yet in tournament mode. Before heading out to walk the course in search of my favorite players, I went to the bar to grab a drink. I sat at the bar and ordered an orange juice. I remember it well, as I had just moved to Florida the previous fall and I was thrown by the addition of ice. I had never had OJ with ice before. On the television was the weather forecast for the week, and the gentleman beside me at the bar started up a conversation with me. We talked about the weather and sports highlights, and who the favorite was for the Players that week, among other things. I thought the guy looked familiar, but I couldn’t put my finger on it, so I just let it go. We were speaking for about 5 or 10 minutes when the bartender said, “Can I get you anything else Mr. Stewart?” Dressed in jeans, a t-shirt and a ball cap, Payne Stewart had been sitting next to me at a bar and I didn’t even recognize him. He could clearly see the surprise on my face, and proceeded to introduced himself. I responded by introducing myself and saying, “It’s a pleasure to meet you Mr. Stewart! I didn’t even recognize you without the knickers!” Ever the gentleman and joker, he said, “No problem, I get that all the time, and please, call me Payne.” As he stood up to make his way to the locker room we shook hands again and I wished him luck. He took a few steps towards the door and turned back to me, saying “It’s too bad you picked David Duval to win, ’cause I’m gonna kick his butt! ”
17 months later, and only a month after that magical 1999 Ryder Cup, Payne Stewart was killed in a plane crash near Mina, South Dakota. I grieved his loss along with the rest of the golf community, and I thought back to the 10 minutes we spent together in Ponte Vedra Beach over OJs. I’ll never forget the smirk on his face as he boldly predicted he would beat my favorite player that week. As it turns out, He finished the week at -5 and beat David Duval by 4 shots. Rest in peace Payne, we all miss you.