By Mike Hicks
Many things have to go your way to win a U.S. Open. For Payne Stewart, the good fortune started with a missed cut.
When Payne and I, his caddie, missed the cut at the 1999 FedEx St. Jude Classic in Memphis, we went right to Pinehurst, where the Open was to be played the next week. Saturday morning, he walked No. 2 with his swing coach, Chuck Cook, plus a sand wedge and putter, spending time on every green. On Sunday, we played our first practice round, joined by Dr. Dick Coop, the sports psychologist who had been working with Payne for years. Early on, Dick noticed that Payne wasn’t picking out an intermediate target before every shot: As soon as he said that, everything started to click, tee to green. The next two days of practice were the best I’ve ever seen a pro have.
Then we got another break: Thunderstorms delayed the finish in Memphis until Monday, which meant those guys wouldn’t get to Pinehurst until Monday night at the earliest. By the time they arrived, we were prepared and ready for the tournament to begin.
Wednesday, Payne hit one bucket of balls and spent 30 minutes on the putting green. We were done by 11, ate lunch, and caught an afternoon movie.
Thursday morning was cool for mid-June. Pars on the first two holes followed by birdies on 3, 10, 13, and 15 and a lone bogey at 18 put us 3-under, one stroke off the lead. On Friday, birdies on 4 and 7 put us in the lead at 5-under, but errant iron shots at 8 and 9 resulted in back-to-back bogeys and even-par 35 on the front. That was followed by some of the best golf I saw Payne play. He missed greens at 12, 14, and 16 and drove into the rough at 16 and 18, but he birdied 15 for a round of 69.
Saturday’s round was up and down, I think because of the pressure that goes with leading the Open and the fact that we’d been in the same position the year before and didn’t close the deal. Bogeys on 8, 9, and 10 put Payne at even par, but somehow he reached down deep and played the last eight holes 1-under with a birdie on the last hole. That gave us a one-shot lead going into the final round.
Before driving to Pinehurst Sunday morning, I told my wife that if we made four birdies today, we’d win. He would do just that, starting with a 3 at the first. On the 2nd, his ball was short and right of the green, the worst spot possible. The six-footer he holed for bogey probably was the biggest putt of the day. He got the shot back on the 3rd.
From there on, Payne and playing partner Phil Mickelson hit some spectacular shots. But none were better than the up and downs both made on the 9th, a par three with the hole cut front-right: Payne missed the green long and left, Phil was short and right, both made three.
Bogeys on 10, 12, and 15 put us one shot back with three to play. When Phil bogeyed 16 we came to the 17th, another par three, tied. The two shots on 17 were the greatest I’ve ever witnessed: Payne hit 6-iron four feet from the hole, then Phil hit a 7-iron to five feet. Payne made his putt, Phil missed. We had a one-shot lead playing the last.
On 18, Payne hit his tee shot on a line we both thought was in the fairway. But when we got to the ball, the lie was horrible. He didn’t even ask what we had to the green; all he wanted was a layup number short of the cross-bunkers 80 yards from the green. The layup left us 78 yards to the hole. Phil was on the green but 35 feet from the hole, so a par on 18 would more than likely win the U.S. Open. Payne put the ball on the green about 15 feet away.
Phil missed, tapped in for par, and set up arguably the most dramatic finish in Open history. Payne rose to the occasion, making the par putt. After his iconic fist pump, I literally jumped for joy into his arms. Then he embraced Phil and told him how becoming a father would ease the pain of the loss.
Four months later, my good friend and boss would lose his life. Since then, I’ve worked for many players, none of whom have displayed the heart or intestinal fortitude of Payne Stewart.