Remembering Payne at Brookline

This week professional golf competition returns to The Country Club at Brookline, Mass for the first time since the USA’s heroic comeback victory at the 1999 Ryder Cup. The last player to make a swing on the course that day was a man in knickers and a flat cap. It was a greenside bunker shot on 18. Moments later he conceded the hole to opponent Colin Montgomerie which lost him the match. That man was Payne Stewart.

Yes, you read that correctly. Stewart told Monty to pick it up even though he could have won the match outright. It was an incredible gesture of sportsmanship and selflessness by Payne. Thanks to a 45-footer on #17 20 minutes earlier, the US team had already won the cup in dramatic fashion. But pride was on the line for the remaining match on the course. But that wasn’t important to Payne Stewart. He went out as one of the game’s greatest competitors and the greatest gentleman. He tragically passed away a few weeks later.

I’ve written about how special and inspiring the 1999 Ryder Cup was to me. At the time I was 17 years old, struggling with some personal issues and depression. Golf was my greatest love. It was the only thing that brought me joy during a very dark time. That US team’s performance during that stunning comeback slapped me right in the mouth. It told me to wake up and get my ass in gear.

As players enter the locker room at The Country Club this week, they will pass a framed shirt on the wall. That framed shirt boasts a hideous pattern and color. But this shirt is more famous and legendary than it is ugly. It’s Payne Stewart’s shirt from that Ryder Cup Sunday. The maroon shirt features a collage of team portraits of victorious US Ryder Cup teams. And had the team lost while wearing them, they’d go down as the absolute worst wardrobe choice in the history of sport. Instead, they are a legendary piece of apparel. The shirt was lent to the club by Payne’s wife, Tracey. She agreed to let the them show it throughout June.

Payne’s concession of the 18th hole to Monty runs deeper than a guy whose team had already won and he was in a hurry to go celebrate. Europe’s best player had a tough week with the raucous Boston gallery all week. Taunted and heckled at every tee box and every green, Monty slow-played them on purpose and settled into an extremely deliberate pace and routine. This made the crowds even angrier.

Things hit a breaking point and leaped over the line at the 10th tee, however. Someone tossed a beer which struck Montgomerie’s wife and covered her. “I’m sorry this is happening”, said Payne to Monty. He then pointed out the beer tosser to security and had him removed.

On that famous 17th hole, with the match all square, Collin stood in the fairway while Stewart found himself in the left rough. From there they watched an explosion of humanity up on the green as Justin Leonard’s 45 foot putt disappeared into the hole which gave the US the guaranteed half point they needed to win the cup. The ground shook and it was absolute mayhem as other players, wives, caddies, and fans stormed the green and ran right through the line of Jose Maria Olazabal’s birdie putt. He still had that to tie the hole. Not a snowball’s chance of hell in making that now.

Just like that Stewart and Montgomerie’s match no longer mattered, except for personal pride. But a prouder moment was looming. Payne wanted to show his competitor some grace and end the abuse and misery. He splashed out to a few feet from the bunker and marked his par putt with a coin. As Monty stood over his birdie putt he saw Payne walk over and pick up his coin out of the corner of his eye. It was over. Stewart conceded and took the loss. Monty bowed his head and applauded his opponent before they shook hands. “That’s enough for today”, Stewart said. “I’d have to agree”, replied Collin.

A few weeks later, Stewart missed the cut at Disney and boarded a Learjet at the Orlando airport. The plan was to have a business lunch in Dallas before heading to Houston for the Tour Championship. Sadly, he never made it to Dallas as the jet lost cabin pressure and crashed over a field in South Dakota.

The PGA Tour has recognized a Payne Stewart Award winner since 2000. The recipient is recognized for charity and sportsmanship. Arnold Palmer was the inaugural winner and Justin Rose is the most recent winner in 2021.

Behind the 18th green at Pinehurst #2 stands a statue of Payne in his iconic pose with a right fist in the air, back foot off the ground, dawning that cut-off rain vest. This was the image of him making the winning putt at the 1999 US Open. Just as iconic is Payne with a nice high finish, feet buried in the sand. This was the last struck shot in professional golf competition at The Country Club…until this week.

Enjoy the game and each other,

Seth Zipay – Head Golf Professional