Commentary

Olympic showed Stewart still had it

Updated: May 22, 2012, 7:31 PM ET
By Farrell Evans | ESPN.com

In the final round of the 1998 U.S. Open at the Olympic Club, Payne Stewart held a 1-shot lead over Lee Janzen as the plus-four wearing veteran stood on the tee at the par-4 12th hole. Since a 4-under-par 66 in Thursday's first round, the 41-year-old Missouri native had clung to the lead. But it was Sunday now, Father's Day, and the pressure was mounting.

Though he was one of the most popular players in the sport, Stewart -- who would later perish in a plane crash with five others in October 1999 -- had struggled with his game since changing his ball and clubs a few years earlier.

[+] EnlargeJanzen-Stewart
Craig Jo/Getty ImagesLee Janzen, right, won his second U.S. Open in 1998 by holding off Payne Stewart, left, at the Olympic Club. A year later, Stewart would capture his own second U.S. Open trophy.

The U.S. Open and PGA Championship winner's most recent victory had come in 1995 in Houston in a playoff with Scott Hoch. In Stewart's last competitive round before Olympic, he shot 83 in the final round of the Memorial. So he didn't have a lot of confidence coming into San Francisco.

"We weren't expecting a whole lot," said Mike Hicks, Stewart's former caddie. "At Olympic, Payne didn't play that great. He got it around. But as far as ballstriking, he didn't really have his A-game from tee to green. But he took advantage of his good shots and was as good as anybody around the greens."

So here was Stewart on the 12th tee, a shot ahead of the man who had beaten him in the U.S. Open six years earlier at Baltusrol. Stewart had started the final round with a 4-shot lead over Tom Lehman, but with a couple of early bogeys, his inconsistent ballstriking had finally caught up with him.

What happened next is forever etched in the annals of major championship history. Stewart's tee ball with a three-metal settled in a sand-filled divot.

"We hadn't hit a fairway all day and we finally hit one and it ends up in a divot," Hicks said. "That was a sign maybe that it wasn't our day."

With Hicks, Stewart would agonize over the shot from the divot. They didn't know the depth of the sand. Stewart had always believed that divots in the fairway should be treated like ground under repair and that players should be given a free drop.

According to one of Stewart's teachers, Dr. Jim Suttie, the fear of hitting into divots wore on Stewart's mind so much that after Olympic he was determined to master the art of playing from them. A year later at Pinehurst, where Stewart beat Phil Mickelson in epic fashion with a 15-foot, par-saving putt on the 72nd hole for his second U.S. Open title, Stewart practiced hitting shots on the range from sand-filled divots. That exercise would prove prescient as Stewart found three divots in the fairway during the week, two at the 5th hole. He would make par on two of those three holes.

At Olympic, with little sand, Stewart could have hit it out of the divot pretty easily. They considered trying to cut a 9-iron into the right pin, but ultimately they settled on trying to hit a hard pitching wedge. Stewart would pull the shot left of the green.

Stewart's deliberations over the divot helped contribute to his group earning a bad time from the USGA. Stewart got the news after he hit the shot. If they had gotten another poor time it would have been a 2-shot penalty.

"You can't play a U.S. Open final group, not today, in 3 hours, 48 minutes. There is no way in life that these kids could do that," Hicks said. "But we got behind right off the get-go because we were playing with Lehman and at the time you could practice putting after the hole was over and he would hit a few putts. Lehman was also slow. He had a tag on him for being slow."

Stewart would walk off the 12th green with a bogey and for the first time since early in the first round, he didn't own the lead outright. He would make his fifth bogey of the day at the 16th to lose a share of the lead with Janzen at even par. At the 18th, Stewart narrowly missed a 25-foot putt that would have forced an 18-hole playoff.

Mike Hicks was on Stewart's bag for his three major championships. The 50-year-old Hillsborough, N.C., native, who now caddies for Spencer Levin, is in his 32nd year on tour. He believes that Olympic marked a major turning point in Stewart's attitude toward the game that would be the catalyst for his good play for the remainder of his life.

"Payne proved to himself at Olympic that he could still compete on the PGA Tour against all the top young players," Hicks said. "It really rejuvenated him as far as his confidence was concerned. He knew that he could compete again.

"The U.S. Open is the hardest tournament in the world to win, especially back when he won his Opens. That's when the USGA could get sadistic with the course setups. He probably doesn't win the '99 Open without what happened to him the year before at Olympic."

Yet that week Hicks learned something more fundamental and life affirming about his boss.

"When I first started caddying for Payne in '88 he could be a real bitter person if something like that happened. But he was genuinely happy for Lee Janzen," Hicks said. "It was amazing really how he handled it.

[+] EnlargePayne Stewart
Doug Collier/Getty ImagesPayne Stewart narrowly missed his second U.S. Open victory, losing to Lee Janzen by a single stroke at the Olympic Club in 1998.

"A lot of that had to do with him finding Christianity in early '98. He was a different person after that. Christ will change your life. It will change the way you handle yourself. Payne was just at peace with the whole scenario at Olympic."

In '99, Stewart won in just his third event of the year at the AT&T Pebble Beach in a rain-shortened event and added two more second-place finishes before his 11th and final career win at the U.S. Open at Pinehurst.

Hicks last saw his good friend that October at the Disney event in Orlando. They would miss the cut that week. Stewart hadn't putted very well. So after their round on Friday they went directly to the putting green. This was unchartered territory for Stewart, who had a penchant for bailing the course as soon as he learned that he had missed the cut. He would putt for about a half hour.

Hicks was supposed to meet Stewart that next morning to go and watch his son Aaron play in a midget league football game. But Hicks called Stewart on Saturday morning to tell him that he wouldn't be able to attend the game because his then-2-year-old daughter was sick. That was the last time they spoke.

On the following Monday, Oct. 25, 1999, Hicks was on the 8th hole at the Champions Golf Club preparing for the Tour Championship, when a friend called him on his cell phone to say that there was something up with a plane and that it was believed that Payne Stewart was on the flight. That morning Stewart had boarded a private plane in Orlando bound for Dallas with five other people, including his agents, Robert Fraley and Van Ardan. They had plans to look at a tract of land for a new SMU golf course. Then Stewart would head down to Houston for the tournament, where he was planning to play a practice round on Tuesday.

Hicks blew his friend's comments off as conjecture. Five minutes later he got a call from his wife telling him that Stewart's wife was looking for him to confirm the news that it was indeed his boss' plane that had crashed in South Dakota after the loss of cabin pressure, causing everyone on board to die of hypoxia.

Not long ago, Hicks watched for the first time the final round of the 1999 U.S. Open at Pinehurst on the Golf Channel. He's still mesmerized by Stewart's achievement that week at the age of 42.

"Look at the people that he beat that week: David Duval, Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Vijay Singh," Hicks said. "They were all the greatest players in the world at that time. If you factor all that stuff in, the '98 U.S. Open, the '99 Open and all the guys that he beat that week and it's probably one of the greatest wins in U.S. Open history."

Hicks, affectionately known as Hicksey by everyone on tour, hopes to make it back to Olympic next month with Levin, who will try to get into the field the week of the Memorial through a 36-hole sectional qualifier.

Hicks still has his yardage book from the '98 Open, but if he makes it back there with Levin he'll confront a much different Lake course than he and Stewart faced 14 years ago. New tees at eight holes have put more than 300 yards on the Sam Whiting design, taking it to a shade more than 7,000 yards.

But no matter how much the course changes with the times, for Hicksey, the Olympic Club will always be the place that gave new hope to a man who didn't have long to be with us.

Farrell Evans covers golf for ESPN and can be contacted at evans.espn@gmail.com.