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Waterville: A shrine to Payne Stewart

The late great golfing gentleman has a place in the club's history

Posted Oct 30, 2013 by Dermot Gilleece

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A recent visit to Waterville brought to mind that Payne Stewart played his last tournament at around this time, 14 years ago.  Indeed it was impossible not to be aware of the gregarious American, given that the south Kerry club is almost a shrine to him.  Standing behind the ninth green is a larger-than-life bronze of Stewart while the inside of the charming clubhouse is filled with evocative photographs and quotes. Like this one from Stewart: “The thing about dreams is that sometimes you get to live them out.”

The US Open is going back next June to Pinehurst No 2 where he memorably captured the title for a second time in 1999.  A few weeks later he was at Waterville receiving honorary membership of the club from the captain, D Paul Mulcahy. Also honoured during that visit were Stuart Appleby, David Duval, Tiger Woods, Lee Janzen and Mark O’Meara, who joined Stewart in a remarkable six-ball which I happened to witness on the Old Head of Kinsale.

It was also at that time that he gratefully accepted the club’s invitation to be their honorary captain in Millennium Year. And the gesture was entirely appropriate, given the player’s popularity in the area, where he delighted locals with rousing tunes on the harmonica.

Those simple, Kerry folk weren’t to know that the visitor they had taken to their hearts would make his last tournament appearance that year, in the National Car Rental Golf Classic at Lake Buena Vista, Florida, which started on October 21st.  

During the second round, he was a little taken aback to be addressed by an Irish voice while walking from the 15th green to the 16th tee on the Magnolia Course. Initially, he responded with suitable 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 Mullingar native, Tom Duffy, 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. The Dublin-based solicitor replied with a smile: “Yes. Steer clear of committee meetings.”  To which the American gave a hearty laugh, familiar, no doubt, with the facility for 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 JP McManus?” “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 later reflected: “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 nine months later, 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 that bronze, erected in his memory.

- Dermot Gilleece

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