EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was originally published on Oct. 25, 2018, on the 19th anniversary of Payne Stewart’s tragic death.
Nineteen years ago. It may seem like yesterday to some, but 19 years is 19 years, and Payne Stewart has been gone for a while now. His death in late 1999 jolted the golf universe, not only because he was such a visible and charismatic presence, but the timing of the tragedy.
Stewart had won the U.S. Open barely four months earlier, a heroic performance punctuated by a 15-foot par save on the 72nd hole to beat Phil Mickelson by a stroke. And just 29 days before the plane crash that killed Stewart and five others, he’d played in perhaps the most memorable Ryder Cup ever, helping the United States mount an unprecedented Sunday comeback to knock off Europe at the Battle of Brookline.
But you knew all that. What none of us will ever know is whether Stewart would have altered the competitive element of the matches had he not boarded that LearJet on the morning of October 25, three days before the start of the ’99 Tour Championship. Stewart’s beloved U.S. has won just two of the nine meetings with the Euros in those 19 years, generating a fallout that has led to charges of apathy among the Americans, changes in the qualification process, public criticism of several unsuccessful captains and the formation of a task force assigned to fix all those issues.
Nothing has really worked. We found that out last month in France, where the Yanks were walloped yet again despite fielding what appeared to be one of their strongest teams ever. Payne Stewart was a man with a dynamic personality and an intense love of his country, a pro golfer with a pronounced patriotic streak. Maybe he wouldn’t have made a difference in changing Uncle Sam’s misfortunes, but he was exactly the kind of guy who’d have given it a try.
“Would Payne have been a great captain? No question about it.” — Mike Hicks
“He loved America, loved playing for America,” says Mike Hicks, Stewart’s longtime caddie. “No question, some of that patriotism has left the game. Payne, Hal Sutton, Paul Azinger, who thought outside the box and got it done [as a victorious captain in 2008], you don’t find many guys like that anymore.”
Hicks, who currently works for Vaughn Taylor, has been carrying a bag on the PGA Tour since 1981. Twelve of those years were with Stewart. “Would Payne have been a great captain? No question about it,” Hicks adds. “And he’d still be heavily involved today if they let him.”
Having known Hicks since the late 1990s, I’ve come to recognize the journalistic value of strong working relationships with tour caddies. They often have strong opinions and are usually more willing to express them than are the players, most of whom fear the ramifications of their comments.
I’m pretty sure I’ve never had a conversation with Hicks and not walked away with something good. “Bottom line? We just don’t play that well against them,” he says of those seven losses since Stewart’s passing. “And I’ve been saying this for a long time — ever since the Presidents Cup came along [in 1994], it has been a hindrance. It takes a year to get over a Ryder Cup, win or lose. Then you go to a Presidents Cup and it’s not nearly the same thing.
“You can’t just invent that type of atmosphere. Our guys are loose and it shows. Then you get to the Ryder Cup and it exposes everything inside you if nerves are even a tiny issue.”
I recently received an email from a friend in Milwaukee, a doctor who happens to be a huge golf fan, and he said the same thing. The Presidents Cup, doc said, is costing the Americans dearly in the match-play series considered far more important than the one manufactured by the PGA Tour. I don’t necessarily disagree, but as a writer, I have a hard time substantiating the premise.
The International squads over the years haven’t been nearly as formidable as Europe’s rosters. Colin Montgomerie, Sergio Garcia, especially Ian Poulter — all three have played way over their heads when thrown into the team format. Conversely, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson haven’t performed close to expectations for the U.S., and without ample contributions from its two biggest stars, the United States has repeatedly struggled.
“Tiger never played team sports,” Hicks says. “A lot of today’s players really aren’t familiar with the whole team concept. In Payne’s era, for whatever reason, the top players were very much into the team part of it because they played other sports growing up.”
Any series that becomes as lopsided as the Ryder Cup invokes lots of theories on how things got so out of balance. And when it comes to food for thought, Old Glory’s failures against Europe have become a buffet. Stewart probably would have been appointed the captaincy in 2004, which was the year Sutton infamously paired Woods and Mickelson together twice on the first day.
America was routed at home. Sutton was fitted for a pair of goat horns, and when the Yanks sent an inferior team to Ireland two years later with Tom Lehman in charge, they were blown out again.
A week before the ’04 gathering at Oakland Hills, Mickelson signed a huge contract with Callaway, changing almost every club in his bag for what is arguably the biggest event in golf. Is it Sutton’s fault that the left-hander played so terribly? Woods and Mickelson also use golf balls of almost polar-opposite spin rates. Shouldn’t Sutton have taken that into consideration with pairing the two for the Friday foursomes?
In bulletproof retrospect, we can surmise that Stewart would have gotten more out of the 2004 or 2006 teams than did Sutton or Lehman, But what’s done is done, water over the bridge in what has become an ocean of disappointment. That said, Stewart’s death was one a hell of a lot more tragic than the results of some silly little match-play shindig.
He’s probably been watching from the top floor over the last 19 years. And he’s probably got a few ideas on how to clean up this mess.
All views expressed in this column are those of John Hawkins and do not necessarily reflect those of the Caddie Network.