BROOKLINE, Massachusetts. – Paul Azinger supported some practicing professionals on the court at the US Open and told a story about the worst day of his life. He had just left Disney World with his family in the fall of 1999, and after spending hours blissfully disconnected from the real world, he finally turned on his flip phone.
The messages came like a freight train.
Are you alive? Are you on this plane? You are safe?
Azinger couldn’t process the questions. Finally, his brother caught up with him somewhere between the Orlando theme park and his home in Bradenton and said, “Payne’s plane crashed and everyone is dead.
Payne Stewart’s plane, carrying Azinger’s best friends. Robert Fraley, Bill Parcells’ agent, and other star NFL coaches. Van Ardan, a marketing genius. And Stewart, the talkative, flamboyant golfer and defending US Open champion who had just made one of the most graceful moves in Ryder Cup history a month earlier at the Country Club outside Boston.
The Learjet was en route from Orlando to Dallas for a brief stopover before completing the trip to Houston, home of the Tour Championship. “People thought I might have been on that plane because they were all my friends,” the 12-time PGA Tour winner and Ryder Cup-winning captain Azinger told The Post on Tuesday. He remembers being on I-4 that day, stopping at a rest area after the call with his brother. Azinger called his father.
“And then I lost all the strength in my legs and fell straight to the ground uncontrollably,” Azinger said. “I just fell.”
He completed the journey with his wife, two daughters and his best friends in silence, and when he got home he collapsed back to the ground. Courtesy of Stewart’s wife, Tracey, Azinger would later begin his eulogy by donning Payne’s famous tam-o’-shanter cap and rolling up his pants in Payne’s famous plus-four style to reveal Payne’s famous Argyle socks.
“Payne stood out,” Azinger said Tuesday. “He didn’t want to not stand out. One day he walked into the shooting range at Bay Hill and saw six guys wearing the same jersey, and he decided he would never be that guy.
Nearly 23 years later, with the Country Club returning to the center of the golf universe, the late great Stewart stands out in the form of his last great game. You know the story of the 1999 Ryder Cup. The Europeans held a 10-6 lead before the Americans staged a furious rally inspired by the boisterous Boston crowd. During the penultimate game, Stewart vs. Colin Montgomerie, the pale Scotsman was subjected to a level of verbal abuse that made Fenway’s treatment of Derek Jeter’s Yankees seem amiable by comparison.
Monty’s father left the field in the first nine. On the fifth hole, Stewart had promised the Scotsman that he would help control the crowd, and sure enough, the American flagged some unruly men to security. “Some of our fans are out of control and it’s not appropriate,” Stewart said.
As the two waited later to make their approach shots on the 17th, Justin Leonard emptied his eternal 45-footer, prompting a wild (and wildly inappropriate) American end zone dance that stomped on Jose’s entire line of putt. María Olazábal and effectively sealed the agreement. Fans acted as if the Red Sox had won it all for the first time since 1918 and celebrated even more at Monty’s expense.
With his game even on the 18th green, and with nothing but his individual bests on the line, Stewart took stock of the damage already done and picked up his Montgomerie ball marker and conceded the win. Stunned by the gesture, Monty rose from his crouch, clapped his hands three times, and warmly greeted his approaching opponent.
“We had already won the Ryder Cup,” Stewart said. “That’s what it is, a team event. My individual stats mean nothing, and I wasn’t going to tell him that.
That night, Stewart jumped on top of Tiger Woods while he was sleeping and ordered him to join the team’s late-night party. Phil Mickelson’s caddy at the time, Bones Mackay, recalled that Stewart celebrated the American win like no one else. “Last time I saw the guy,” Mackay said, “he was dancing on a piano.”
At 42, a loving husband and proud father of two sons, Stewart still had a long way to go.
“We talked after the Cup and I told him he did the right thing by conceding,” Azinger said. “And Payne said to me, ‘When I’m captain, you’ll be my assistant.’ I will never forget.
Four weeks later, a sudden loss of cabin pressure inside Stewart’s plane killed all six people on board before the plane left Florida, sending it on a phantom flight across the country. Followed by F-16 fighter jets positioned to shoot the plane down if necessary, the plane operated on autopilot until it ran out of fuel and crashed in an open field in South Dakota. The sports world stopped and mourned the death of a man who had just given a profound lesson in sportsmanship.
“Payne would get in trouble off the field sometimes, when he would cross the line and heckle you and joke about you,” Azinger said. “When Payne said cheeky things, we all got angry. But you always knew he would do the right thing when it came to etiquette and the rules of the game. Everything Payne did was ethical, and he really loved him for it.
This week, Stewart’s Ryder Cup jersey is framed and hanging in the US Open locker room, courtesy of his wife. In golf’s turbulent times, it’s a helpful reminder that, at its best, the game is defined by dignity and grace.