- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 15, 2005

PINEHURST, N.C. — Payne Stewart’s victory punch was preserved for the ages long before yesterday’s dedication of a bronze memorial behind the 18th green at Pinehurst No. 2.

The sentiment was well-intended, the pose aptly rendered. And the words from 1999 U.S. Open runner-up Phil Mickelson no doubt were heartfelt. But watching the somewhat staid ceremony, which came complete with a bagpiper and a somber selection of golf’s elite figures, there was no way around the notion that it was the ultimate hollow gesture.

The model, the player who demonstrated the essence of man in his moment of ecstasy, cannot be duplicated in any medium other than memory. And it is in that precious place where his moment was immortalized six years ago.

The game might never see another confluence of characters, circumstances and events to match the 1999 U.S. Open. Frankly, for golf fans, the last major played at Pinehurst No.2 achieved near-sacred status and demanded reverence even before the plane carrying Stewart and five others crashed in a South Dakota pasture on Oct.25, 1999.

Forget Jack at Augusta in 1986, the sinking Shark of the 1996 Masters, Tiger’s green-jacket romp in 1997 or Van de Velde’s mind-numbing meltdown at Carnoustie. The 1999 U.S. Open is the leader in the clubhouse for the greatest Slam story of this generation. Stewart’s death four months later adds an astounding dose of poignancy and perspective. But simply on its own merits, the 1999 Open was already swimming in unparalleled humanity.

First, there is the course — Donald Ross’ 7,214-yard, par-70 masterpiece of turtle-backed greens in the Sandhills. With its wily, quirky subtleties, No. 2 possesses so much of the Scot’s personality that it seems like a living extension of the man himself. The 1999 Open marked major golf’s debut at No. 2, a course no less than Nicklaus describes as “the greatest on the planet.”

And what protagonists. The four men involved in Pinehurst’s Sunday scuffle were Stewart, Mickelson, Tiger Woods and Vijay Singh. Name another major, past or present, with such a clunker-free cast.

Stewart, then 42, was attempting to overcome his demons from the previous year’s Open, in which he lost a four-stroke, final-round lead and fell to close friend Lee Janzen at the Olympic Club.

Mickelson, still five years from a green jacket, was in the midst of his desperate quest for a first major victory. Lefty already had grown uncomfortably accustomed to the title of “best player never to win a major.” And yet as he drew ever closer to dumping the Avis title off his shoulders that week, the cellphone in his golf bag loomed ever larger. If his wife, Amy, went into labor with the couple’s first child, Mickelson had sworn he would drop his weapons and walk away … in the middle of the night, the middle of the round or on the teebox of the 72nd hole.

And though both Woods and Singh were reduced to bit roles and cut from the event’s climactic scene, it’s tough to do better than cameos from the game’s once-and-future kings.

A fine mist, a putting tip from Stewart’s wife, Tracey, and the tolling bells from the village church — which began when Stewart and Mickelson stood on the 16th green — were the final elements of the surreal story. With his jaunty trademark knickers subdued by a tattered homemade rain vest (the closest golf has come to Mike Tyson’s sleeveless terry cloth), Stewart coasted home a 25-foot double-breaker for par on the savage 492-yard, par-4 16th to draw even with Mickelson.

The pair then swapped brilliant approaches to the 17th, a 190-yard par-3. After Mickelson slightly pulled his 8-footer, Stewart calmly took command of the tournament with a birdie from five feet. The salvo provoked no emotion from Stewart other than a gum-chomping glare of intensity. It seems Stewart’s attention-deficit disorder was held in check precisely by the one tournament that forces players to focus like no other.

Just as there was no celebration on the 17th green, there was no grimace on the 18th tee when Stewart pushed his drive right into a nasty lie in the rough. He simply advanced his ball down the fairway, wedged to 15 feet below the hole and without changing expression watched Mickelson narrowly miss his 30-foot birdie bid.

Then, with the whole world thinking Monday playoff, perhaps nobody more than Mickelson with the labor clock ticking (Amanda would be born the following day), Stewart dead-centered the winning putt.

He already had authored an amazing performance, carding a even-par 70 while hitting just seven fairways — thanks in large part to just 25 putts. Now he would author the most memorable celebration golf has seen.

He struck his immortal pose, right fist extended, right leg perpendicular to the ground as counterbalance. Caddie Mike Hicks then leaped into his arms and Stewart, completing a day of astounding achievement, lifted him high as though he were weightless. Finally, and perhaps most enduringly, Stewart embraced Mickelson’s face in his hands and through a cathartic mask of tears shared his Father’s Day blessing:

“Good luck with the baby. There’s nothing like being a father.”

Six years later, now on the eve of the 105th U.S. Open, it is the memory of this last act that still pushes Mickelson to a memorial pause.

“The memories of Payne of Pinehurst of that week are very strong, very poignant and very special,” Mickelson said yesterday. “I will forever be touched by the fact that in his moment of greatest triumph, he was thinking of me and my family. Payne Stewart had a huge heart.”

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