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Dermot on Payne Stewart

Imagine Golf Club's Dermot Gilleece talks to Stuart Appleby about Payne Stewart's legacy 10 years on

Posted Oct 26, 2009 by Dermot Gilleece


When the US Open was staged at Pinehurst No 2 in June 1999, Stuart Appleby played the first two rounds with Payne Stewart.  Four months later, the Australian filled a prominent role in a desperately sad memorial service at the Champions Club in Houston, to mark the passing of Stewart who was killed on the Monday of that week in a freak air accident.

That was ten years ago, on October 25th, 1999, when the 42-year-old American was headed from Orlando to Dallas for a meeting on a proposed golf-course development.  We're told that the chartered Lear jet flew a ghostly journey halfway across the US with its windows iced over before nosediving into a field in South Dakota.           

"I remember how calm and focused Payne was during those two rounds at Pinehurst," Appleby told me earlier this year.  "Some of the shots he hit are still fresh in my mind.  And I'm wondering where the 10 years have gone."  He went on: "On and off over the last four or five years, I've spent time with his son, Aaron.  He's 20 now and I see a lot of Payne in him, as a jovial character who loves a good time; loves to party.  He looks a lot like his dad; very much a chip off the old block."

Appleby met Stewart only a few years before he died.  Yet the player's widow, Tracey, had no problem about the Australian wearing the actual clothes of his fallen friend, on the Friday of the Tour Championship in Houston.  The 72-hole tournament in which there is no cut, was arranged in such a way that 27 holes were played on Thursday and on Saturday, so allowing the day in between to be free for the memorial.

"Though Payne and I were next-door neighbours in Orlando, it still seemed a bit eerie to be in his plus-twos and everything," said Appleby. "But that's what happened.  When we went to The Old Head of Kinsale during a visit to Waterville in July 1999, I remember how proud Payne was of being the newly-crowned US Open champion."

On an earlier trip to County Kerry prior to the Open Championship at Royal Birkdale the previous year, Stewart gained the distinction of a hole-in-one with a two-iron in wild winds on the short, 217-yard third at Ballybunion.  And what made it that bit extra special was the fact that he had four fewer shots on the hole than his celebrated playing partner, Tiger Woods, who happened to run up a five there. 

Meanwhile, he made such an impact locally, that he was chosen to be the honorary club captain of Waterville for the year 2000.  It was a distinction he was delighted to accept but would never actually realise.   
The 1999 visit to The Old Head, where Stewart, Appleby, Woods, Mark O'Meara, David Duval and Lee Janzen played as a six-ball, was all the more memorable for the fact that they negotiated the first 11 holes in a fog so dense that the caddies had to show them the lines by pointing towards the ladies' tees.  "But it suddenly cleared when we reached the long 12th and the sun broke through to make the closing holes a really spectacular experience," said Appleby.  "I loved the place."

When I reminded him that he had used a camcorder to capture the glorious vision of cormorants, guillemots and peregrine falcons swooping down the cliff-face before disappearing into the sea-level caves below, he replied whimsically: "I wonder if I still have that tape."  And there was a smile when I further reminded him of how he smashed three-iron shots off the cliff-edge into the wild Atlantic.

The following summer, during the JP McManus Invitational Pro-Am at Limerick GC, where Stewart was due to compete, Appleby joined US Tour colleagues and Tracey Stewart on a visit to Waterville, where a bronze of the man whom locals had taken so much to their hearts, was unveiled. 

Appleby, too, has created a strong bond with the Waterville locals, through annual visits since then.   And one imagines the tragedy of Stewart's death being rendered all the more acute for him by the profound pain he had to endure in his own life.  Only a few days after the Birkdale Open of '98, the Australian's 25-year-old wife, Renay, was killed in a freak accident when alighting from a London taxi.

He has since found happiness once more, however, in marriage to Ashley and their daughters Ella, aged four, and Mia, three.  But since Stewart's passing, Waterville has never been quite the same.  

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