BROOKLINE, Mass. — Paul Azinger was standing near some practicing pros on the U.S. Open range, telling a story about the worst day of his life. He had just left Disney World with his family in the fall of 1999, and after spending hours blissfully disconnected from the real world, he finally turned on his flip phone.
The messages came in like a freight train.
Are you alive? Are you on that plane? Are you safe?
Azinger couldn’t process the questions. Finally his brother got through to him somewhere between the theme park in Orlando and his home in Bradenton, and told him, “Payne’s plane has crashed, and they are all dead.”
Payne Stewart’s plane, which was carrying Azinger’s best friends. Robert Fraley, the agent to Bill Parcells and other star NFL coaches. Van Ardan, a marketing whiz. And Stewart, the mouthy, flamboyant golfer and reigning U.S. Open champ who had just made one of the most gracious moves in Ryder Cup history a month earlier at The Country Club outside of Boston.
The Learjet was heading from Orlando to Dallas for a brief stopover before finishing the journey to Houston, site of the Tour Championship. “People thought I could’ve been on that plane because they were all my buds,” Azinger, a 12-time PGA Tour winner and victorious Ryder Cup captain, told The Post on Tuesday. He recalled being on I-4 that day instead, pulled over at a rest stop after the call with his brother. Azinger phoned his father.
“And then I lost all strength in my legs and fell straight to the ground uncontrollably,” Azinger said. “I just fell down.”
He finished the drive with his wife, his two daughters, and their best friends in silence, and when he arrived home, he collapsed to the ground again. With the permission of Stewart’s wife, Tracey, Azinger would later open his eulogy by putting on Payne’s famous tam-o’-shanter cap, and rolling up his pants in Payne’s famous plus-fours style to reveal Payne’s famous Argyle socks.
“Payne made himself stand out,” Azinger said Tuesday. “He didn’t want to not stand out. He got on the range one day at Bay Hill and saw that six guys had on the same shirt, and he decided he’d never be that guy.”
Nearly 23 years later, with The Country Club back as the center of the golf universe, the late, great Stewart stands out in the form of his final big-game act. You know the story of the ’99 Ryder Cup. The Europeans were holding a 10-6 lead entering Sunday’s singles before the Americans staged a furious rally inspired by a raucous Boston crowd. During the penultimate match — Stewart versus Colin Montgomerie — the doughy Scot was subjected to a level of verbal abuse that made Fenway’s treatment of Derek Jeter’s Yankees seem neighborly in comparison.
Monty’s father walked off the course on the front nine. On the fifth hole, Stewart had promised the Scot that he would help police the crowd, and sure enough the American pointed out a couple of unruly hecklers to security. “Some of our fans are out of control and it’s not appropriate,” Stewart said.
As the two later waited to hit their approach shots on the 17th, Justin Leonard drained his forever 45-footer that set off a wild (and wildly inappropriate) American end-zone dance that trampled all over Jose Maria Olazabal’s putting line and effectively sealed the deal. The fans acted as if the Red Sox won it all for the first time since 1918, and did some more celebrating at Monty’s expense.
With their match even on the 18th green, and with nothing more than their individual records on the line, Stewart assessed the damage already done and picked up his Montgomerie’s ball marker and concede the victory. Stunned by the gesture, Monty rose from his crouch, clapped three times, and warmly greeted his approaching opponent.
“We had already won the Ryder Cup,” Stewart said. “That’s what it is, a team event. My individual statistics don’t mean anything, and I wasn’t going to put him through that.”
That night, Stewart jumped on top of a sleeping Tiger Woods and ordered him to rejoin the team’s late-night party. Phil Mickelson’s caddy at the time, Bones Mackay, recalled that Stewart celebrated the U.S. victory like nobody else. “The last time I ever saw the guy,” Mackay said, “he was dancing on top of a piano.”
At 42, a loving husband and proud father of two, Stewart had so much living yet to do.
“We spoke after the Cup, and I told him he did the right thing in conceding,” Azinger said. “And Payne told me, ‘When I’m captain, you’re going to be my assistant.’ I’ll never forget that.”
Four weeks later, a sudden loss of cabin pressure inside Stewart’s jet killed all six people on board before the plane left Florida, sending it on a ghost flight across the country. Trailed by F-16 fighter jets positioned to down the aircraft if necessary, the plane ran on autopilot until it ran out of fuel and crashed into an open South Dakota field. The sports world stopped and mourned the death of a man who had just delivered a profound lesson in sportsmanship.
“Payne sometimes got in trouble off the course, when he would cross the line and heckle you and practical-joke you,” Azinger said. “When Payne said brash stuff, we all bristled. But you always knew he would do the right thing when it came to etiquette and the rules of the game. Everything Payne did was ethical, and I really loved him for that.”
This week, Stewart’s Ryder Cup shirt is framed and hanging in the U.S. Open locker room, courtesy of his wife. At a turbulent time in golf, it’s a useful reminder that, at its best, the game is defined by dignity and grace.