By Ann Liguori
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It seems like just yesterday when I was here, at Pinehurst in 1999, when Payne Stewart drained that 15-footer to save par on the 18th and win the U.S. Open title, beating Phil Mickelson by one shot.
During that final round, Mickelson had a one-stroke lead with three holes to play. Stewart made a 25-footer to save par on the 16th. Mickelson missed a short par putt on 16. Stewart birdied the 17th while Mickelson missed an 8-footer for birdie there. Then Stewart drained a 15-footer to save par on 18 and Mickelson narrowly missed a 25-foot birdie putt. The championship was over. Payne Stewart won his third major title (after winning the 1989 PGA Championship and the 1991 U.S. Open).
The drama electrified the premises as Stewart’s putt dropped into the cup. I can still see him celebrating with his right arm stretched out and his right leg extended back, a pose that is immortalized in a bronze statue which is in front of the resort clubhouse.
Four months later, Stewart and five others perished in a plane crash in South Dakota. I was in Hawaii at the time, on the island of Lanai, playing in an Orlimar Golf Celebrity Pro-am. The news was on the television in the clubhouse and Chi Chi Rodriguez, Roger Maltbie, musician Steven Stills, all close friends of Stewart, and myself, were watching footage of the plane and news of what was happening. It was later learned that the plane lost cabin pressure and all on board had died of hypoxia.
I’m sure that most people in the golf world remember exactly where they were when watching the tragic news, as the plane went awry, military planes escorted the Lear until it ran out of fuel and crashed in a field. It was a tragic accident, a most somber time.
At this U.S. Open, we’re all reminded of that special 1999 U.S. Open, the duel between Stewart and Mickelson; Stewart’s celebratory pose; Stewart’s caddie Mike Hicks jumping into his arms; and Stewart consoling Mickelson afterwards and telling him not to worry because he was going to win lots of majors.
Another storyline that week was Mickelson’s wife, Amy, about to give birth to their first child. Mickelson had a beeper in his pocket throughout the championship that year and said he would leave at a moment’s notice if Amy went into labor. She ended up going into labor the day after the tournament and Phil was able to be there for the birth.
Mickelson’s loss became the first of a record six runner-up finishes at the U.S. Open. How fitting it would be if this week, 15 years later, he could win his first U.S. Open title to complete a career Grand Slam?
But the memories of the 1999 U.S. Open belong to Stewart throughout this week at Pinehurst. One can’t go far without thinking of him and all he meant to the game.
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