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Steve Cameron: Stewart's death still leaves legacy

Steve Cameron

Ten years and one day ago, Payne Stewart was on top of the world.

Literally.

Stewart had won the 1999 U.S. Open at Pinehurst during the summer, and then in September he was part of the Americans' miracle comeback that captured the Ryder Cup at Brookline.

So on Oct. 25 that year, the 42-year-old Stewart was flying in a chartered Learjet from his home in Orlando to play in The Tour Championship in Houston-- with a quick stop planned for Dallas, where Payne was helping design and fund a golf course at his alma mater, SMU.

At 9:27 a.m. that morning, the pilots of the Learjet radioed their position, and three minutes later the plane made a right turn that aviation experts claim was done manually.

But then at 9:33, communication to the plane was not answered-- and would not be again.

Thus began one of the saddest, most horrific flights in U.S. history, as it was determined by military jets zooming alongside that the Learjet was flying on autopilot -- and that no one aboard could still be alive. After several agonizing hours, Stewart's plane crashed in a field near Aberdeen, South Dakota.

Frost on the windows indicated that the cabin had suffered a sudden loss of pressure, and that pilots and passengers alike undoubtedly had died of hypoxia -- a lack of oxygen.

I remember hearing the news while the long, doomed stet across the country was still airborne.

Like most Americans, I didn't know five of the people on that plane -- Stewart's two agents, golf course designer Bruce Borland or the pilots -- but I'd chatted with Payne Stewart after several victories and quite a few other events on the PGA Tour.

And like just about everyone else who knew him, I thought Stewart was just a hell of a great guy.

When he'd won the Open in June, Payne had stunned Phil Mickelson with a birdie putt on the final hole to prevail by a single stroke.

Mickelson had played that tournament with a pager in his golf bag, waiting for word that wife Amy was about to deliver their first child. Phil had said that no matter where he stood on the leaderboard, if he got the word...

He'd be gone.

As it happened, the baby didn't arrive during the Open, so Mickelson -- who still hadn't won a major at that time -- was standing on the 18th green when Stewart snatched the trophy.

When the winning putt fell, Payne pumped his fist in triumph -- and then dashed to Mickelson. He put both hands on Phil's cheeks and told him he knew from experience that fatherhood was better than any golf title.

Most fans remember Payne Stewart for his jazzy outfits -- the colorful caps, the "plus-four" trousers that were a throwback to the 1930s and all sorts of other splashes that projected the image of a wild and crazy guy.

But Stewart's friends and competitors on the Tour all knew a different man -- a guy who had been a bit of an irresponsible partier as a young man, but someone who had matured as he began to build a family with his wife, Tracey.

The sense of loss when he died was overwhelming.

The PGA Tour now presents a "Payne Stewart Award" to one of its members each year -- recognizing a golfer who represents himself and the sport in the best possible manner, who works actively in the Tour's various charity programs and, basically, should be considered an ambassador for golf.

I can't claim to have known Payne well, but the times I spent with him were outstanding. He was a genuine guy, and honest enough to admit he'd coasted on his talent for awhile -- until realizing that he would be failing himself if he didn't work harder to improve a God-given gift.

Payne was heading in all the right directions by the fall of 1999.

As the award named for him suggests, he left behind a lot of lessons -- not just for professional golfers, but for anyone who hopes to find happiness in life.

There's also another big one that isn't part of checklist, but might be the most meaningful of all.

Don't take life for granted. Cherish the ones you love. Enjoy each day.

Because none of us know when we'll face three minutes without oxygen.

Steve Cameron is a freelance columnist for the Sun-Star.

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