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U.S. Open: Remembering Payne Stewart’s Dramatic Win in 1999

The 2024 U.S. Open, which begins on Thursday at the Pinehurst Resort & Country Club’s Course No. 2 in Pinehurst, N.C., will be hard pressed to match the excitement that took place on the same course, and in the same tournament, a quarter century ago.

At the 1999 Open, Payne Stewart, 42, knocked in a 15-foot putt for par on the 72nd hole to outduel Phil Mickelson by a stroke. Stewart, known for his flashy wardrobe — he wore knickers — atoned for the four-shot lead he had squandered on the final day of the Open a year before at the Olympic Club in San Francisco.

The victory in Pinehurst was Stewart’s third major title; he had captured the P.G.A. Championship in 1989 and the U.S. Open in 1991.

In October 1999, heading to the season-ending tournament in Texas, Stewart died in a plane crash that also killed five others.

His widow, Tracey Stewart; his caddie, Mike Hicks; Peter Jacobsen, a friend and former tour pro; and the NBC analyst Gary Koch reflected recently on Stewart and his triumph in 1999.

Their comments have been edited and condensed.

PETER JACOBSEN When he first came out [on the PGA Tour], he was pretty cocky. He had his goal set on conquering the world. I think the game of golf humbled him a little bit and made him focus more on what he needed to do to become a great player, and he did just that. He became a man of tremendous faith, a wonderful father and a wonderful husband.

MIKE HICKS He was definitely a changed man. It was evident the way he handled the loss at the Olympic Club. The old Payne Stewart in the early ’90s would have been a little bitter on that loss, probably wouldn’t have handled the media the way he did that Sunday after losing. We led the tournament the whole week. He took that disappointment and that loss and turned that into a positive. He proved to himself he could still play at a very high level, especially in a major, and that carried over into 1999.

GARY KOCH I saw him on the range in the early part of the week, and he seemed very comfortable and very confident. Mike was from the Raleigh area, and Payne had spent time around there with Mike for years, and I wonder if that played into his comfort level a little bit.

TRACEY STEWART He missed the cut in Memphis [the week before], and I think he was planning on coming home, and I said, ‘Why don’t you take Chuck Cook [his instructor] and go up early and get some practice in up there?’ So they did that, and I think he and Chuck walked around the golf course maybe with two or three clubs, and he just figured out where not to hit it.

HICKS I felt good and so did he. He was playing well. We were rested. That tournament in Memphis [FedEx St. Jude Classic] didn’t end till Monday, so it was a blessing that we missed that cut. We played Sunday, Monday and Tuesday and then Wednesday, we hit a bucket of balls and putted for about 15 minutes, and we left the golf course at 11 that morning. We had an early tee time on Thursday, so when he showed up he was prepared.

HICKS That was the worst lie [in the rough for the approach shot] all week. He didn’t even ask me what we had to the green. He hacked an 8 iron out of there somehow. It was amazing he got the 8 iron on it. [The third shot] was pretty predictable, that he would leave himself a putt but [not] the length of putt you think you’re going to make, especially to win a U.S. Open.

STEWART I could see Payne, but I didn’t know where the hole was. I was praying that he could make [the putt]. The crowd went crazy. And then I had to make my way out to see him, and it took a couple of minutes because there were people everywhere. He turned around and saw me, and he immediately grabbed me and whispered in my ear, ‘I did it, lovey.’

HICKS I’ll be honest with you. He’s lining that putt up. I’m thinking, we’re going to be playing Monday [in a playoff].

KOCH It’s pretty rare when you think about it for someone to make a putt, certainly of that length, on the final hole of a major to win. Tiger’s 72nd hole at Torrey Pines [to force a playoff in the 2008 U.S. Open] obviously comes to mind, but you have to rank Payne’s right up there with that.

JACOBSEN When that putt went in, I literally couldn’t believe it. Making putts like that to win majors, especially for par, is indescribable. I was elated.

HICKS He is immortalized with a statue at Pinehurst.

HICKS Obviously, he would have been a Ryder Cup captain. He was always a decent putter, but he had become a great putter. I feel like he would have contended in more majors for the next four or five years because he was in such good condition. His back was not that great, but he had learned to take care of it.

JACOBSEN I always wonder what Payne would be doing today. He might be doing television. I think he would be one of those iconic individuals in golf.

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