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Dermot Gilleece's Blog : Remembering Payne Stewart
Imagine Golf Club's Dermot Gilleece on the affection that the late great had for Ireland
Posted Jun 15, 2009 by Dermot Gilleece
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It hardly seems 10 years since Payne Stewart's second triumph in the US Open at Pinehurst, which was followed by a memorable Irish visit in that summer of 1999. The highlight was probably his participation in the greatest six-ball ever to tread an Irish fairway, when he, Tiger Woods, David Duval, Mark O’Meara, Lee Janzen and Stuart Appleby made the 30-minute chopper trip from Waterville to play the Old Head of Kinsale on a foggy day in July.
When they reached the tee at the spectacular 18th late in the afternoon, one of the caddies recounted how Michael Jordan, on a visit earlier that year, had reduced the 459-yard hole to a drive and nine iron. Mind you, the lad neglected to mention that it was with the assistance of a brisk, following wind. "Not from this tee," protested Stewart. Yes, from that tee, the US Open champion was told.
Opting for a long line down the right, Stewart didn't quite reach the fairway. Then, taking out a four wood, he feigned anger, while muttering "Michael Jordan hit nine-iron my ass." And as a beautifully struck shot sailed towards the elevated green, he gave a boyish whoop of delight.
Later, with typical passion, he talked about "the beauty of this place", insisting that it would become "a must of a golfing destination for tourists from my country." Then he added: "For my own part as a professional, I feel really blessed to have had the opportunity of visiting this very special place."
On a previous Irish visit prior to the 1998 Open Championship at Royal Birkdale, Stewart gained the distinction in the company of Woods and Mark O’Meara of having a hole in one on the 217-yard, short third at Ballybunion. The club was a beautifully struck two iron into a stiff breeze and the outcome was doubly remarkable for the fact that Woods actually had a five at the hole. When has anyone been able to boast of outscoring the world’s top player by four strokes on a par-three?
Now, a year on, much of his time was spent in Waterville, where he entertained US colleagues and delighted locals with rousing tunes on the harmonica. Small wonder the club decided to make him honorary captain for the year 2000, a distinction he was delighted to accept.
Stewart's last tournament appearance was in the National Car Rental Golf Classic at Lake Buena Vista, Florida, which started on October 21st, 1999. And during the second round on the Magnolia Course, he was a little taken aback to be addressed by an Irish voice as he walked from the 15th green to the 16th tee.
Initially, he responded with appropriate courtesy on being congratulated for his splendid victory at Pinehurst, but the player was clearly jolted when the spectator added: "Congratulations on being next year’s honorary captain of Waterville." This time, Stewart asked: "How did you know that? Are you a member of the club?"
At that stage, Dublin-based solicitor, Tom Duffy, a native of Mullingar, explained that he was at Disneyworld on holiday with his wife and children, and had taken the day away from them to have a look at the tournament. Whereupon Stewart asked him if he had any advice to offer regarding Waterville. Duffy replied with a smile: "Yes. Steer clear of committee meetings."
This brought hearty laughter from the American, who was clearly familiar with the ability of such bodies to make a camel out of a horse. With that, he hit off the 16th tee and was followed on the remaining holes of the round by his Irish fan. And their exchanges weren’t finished. As Stewart walked up the 18th fairway, he spied his new-found friend once more, outside the fairway ropes.
Coming over to Duffy, he enquired: "Do you know J P McManus (the well-known Irish financier and golf enthusiast)?" "Not personally," came the reply. "I’m afraid I don’t move in the same social circles." "Well, if you see him, give him my best regards." And all of this while he was attempting to make the halfway cut, which, as it happened, he missed by a stroke after a second successive 71.
Neither man could have known this would be the last tournament hole Stewart would ever play. And by a remarkable coincidence, on that very day, he was among the leading names announced at a press conference in Limerick to compete in the McManus Invitational 2000 Pro-Am at Limerick GC the following July. Duffy said: "Though our exchange was helped by the fact that there weren’t many people around the 16th tee, I was amazed by his friendliness and willingness to chat. And I was really stunned when he actually sought me out going down the 18th." He concluded: "Obviously it’s dreadfully sad that he is now gone from us, but I will treasure these beautiful memories of a generous and charming gentleman."
On the Monday after their meeting, a freak accident claimed the life of an open and generous man, who graced his craft with abundant skill, vitality and a marvellous sense of fun. There would be no more Irish visits and the sense of loss was especially acute at the McManus Pro-Am, after which a group of leading American players, including Woods, went to Waterville on a sad assignment. With Stewart’s widow, Tracey, they honoured their fallen colleague at the unveiling of a larger-than-life bronze, erected in his memory.
It became a poignant postscript to a 1999 visit during which Irish people took him to their hearts. And those of us fortunate enough to have seen him and his five colleagues grace The Old Head, can still picture his mock rebuke on the 17th fairway – "I’m the old guy who just won the US Open." And in the late afternoon, we laughed with him beneath a bright July sun on what had earlier been an extraordinary, foggy day.
- Dermot Gilleece