Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Day The Knickers Died

October 25, 1999.  A lear jet goes down over South Dakota. In subsequent months, we would learn that the plane should not have been flying at all.  There were documented mechanical problems.  What was unusual about this particular plane crash is that Payne Stewart--father, husband, friend, and world-class professional golfer--and some of his closest friends were on board.  A routine flight to start a conversation about building a home golf-course for his alma mater, Southern Methodist University.   It was just another ordinary day.  I wept as though I knew him.   My heart simply broke for his wife, Tracey, and their two precious children.  And, for the others who would not return home.

Why did this matter so much to me?  I am so glad you asked. 

It was 1982--and I was eleven years old.  I was attending the Honda Golf Classic at Inverrary in Lauderhill, Florida.  Glasses, braces, and pre-teen gawkiness were the theme of the hour.  My friend, Challis, and I were walking the course.  Truth be told, we were on the look-out for cute golfers!  Our dads were involved in the communications side of the tournament; hence, the reason two tween-age girls were spending their day at a golf event.

We started following this young player who fit our criteria--and he was wearing these super-cool plus fours with a matching jaunty cap.  He was a throwback to the Bobby Jones era.  And, he made it look good.  He seemed to be doing fairly well, as we followed him from hole-to-hole.  Then, on the crossover between the ninth and tenth holes, I summoned up all the courage I had and asked him for an autograph.

Before Payne could answer, an exceedingly gruff judge intervened and said,
“Mr. Stewart will NOT sign autographs right now!”  I was mortified--could I possibly crawl under the green?

Payne looked at the judge, looked back at me, and replied, ever-so-kindly, “I would be happy to sign an autograph for you!“ And, proceeded to engage in a brief conversation with me.

“What’s your name?" inquired Payne.
“Tracie,” replied the star-struck Me.
“That’s my wife’s name.  It’s a favorite of mine,” stated the charming Payne.
I just smiled--that’s all I could do as I was in the process of melting.
“Tracie, you’re going to keep up with me, right?  Bring me good luck?” asked Payne.
“Of course,” said I, having finally found my voice.
He thanked me and pointedly stares at the prickly judge.
“Sir, I will decide when, where and for whom I will sign autographs,“ declared Payne, firmly but quietly, getting his point across.

Needless to say, he had a fan for life. 

On the very next hole, as he set up his shot, he looked over at me, smiled and winked.  And hit a pretty strong drive off the tee.  Did I mention I became a fan for life?

The simple fact that he took the time, between holes, to respond to a shy, young girl, treat her with kindness and a smile, spoke volumes about Payne.  Years later, I learned that this particular Honda Classic was the first tournament in which he played after qualifying for his PGA Tour card.  Big stuff. 

The rest, of course, is golf history.  Payne went on to win a PGA Championship, represent the United States on the Ryder Cup Team for multiple years, and win his first U.S. Open in 1991.  Perhaps his best-known victory came just four months before his untimely death--the 1999 U.S. Open at Pinehurst.  He holed a beautiful 15-foot putt which would lead to his one-stroke victory over Phil Mickelson. 

But what I remember most from that 1999 victory were the words he said to Phil.  Phil’s wife, Amy, was due to deliver their first daughter at any moment.  In fact, Phil wore a beeper throughout the tournament, saying that if it went off, he was out of there!  As Payne and Phil embraced after Payne’s victory, Payne told Phil, “I’m so excited for you and Amy.  I was there for the birth of both of my kids and those were the best moments of my life!”  Christ-follower, husband, father, friend, golfer.  In that order.  

Payne in his trademark tam and Phil Mickelson.

You never know how far a simple act of kindness can go.  More than 250 yards with your favorite driver, I suspect. 

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