As Good As It Gets

A mystical, magical U.S. Open turns 20

By Bill Fields

The 1999 U.S. Open has stuck with me, the way it has anyone who ever daydreams about golf instead of more important things, because it was quite a week. The event was a long time coming to Pinehurst, so long that it felt as if it would never occur, that the roster of North and Souths, World Opens, Tour Championships and a lone PGA when FDR was in the White House would never get this kind of fancy company. 

“You just assumed it was something that would never happen,” says Curtis Strange, who before winning back-to-back U.S. Opens in the late ’80s won consecutive North and South Amateurs on No. 2 in the mid-’70s.

Then it did, concluding on an oddly cool and drizzly June afternoon as packed with drama as a longleaf pine with needles. Twenty years down the road, Pinehurst’s first Open remains one of the best.

Before it became Payne Stewart’s, the ’99 Open belonged, at least a little bit, to me, to all with close ties to America’s golf capital. As someone born and raised in the area, I’d like to think it still does.

I remember coming to town a month or so before the championship to report a story for Golf World magazine — whose home used to be in the Sandhills and was my professional home for many years — and feeling both anticipation and anxiety about the exposure my hometown was about to receive. Given that the community already was in a growth spurt, the attention from the U.S. Open was going to be an accelerant for that change.

When the USGA announced in 1993 that the Open would be played on No. 2 six years later, the late Brent Hackney wrote in The Pilot: “For Pinehurst, being chosen to host the Open is golf’s equivalent of being the site of football’s Super Bowl, baseball’s World Series or college basketball’s Final Four.”

My preview article reflected the reality of the village’s transition before a shot was struck in the 99th U.S. Open. Pat Corso, then president and COO of Pinehurst, Inc., who had been a key force in the resort’s return to glory under ClubCorp’s ownership, noted the construction of several dozen homes on Pinehurst No. 6.

“You can’t play a hole without hearing a hammer,” Corso told me. “But from where I sit, it’s not so bad. If it’s so bad, why are they all still coming? It’s a matter of perspective. But it’s not the way it was for the resort and it’s not the way it was for those who lived here (before). It’s different.”

As I grew up in Southern Pines during a time when everyone’s world was much smaller, Pinehurst could seem much farther away than 5 miles. In the 1960s and ’70s both places were more afternoon nap than loud party, a sophisticated “Mayberry” of natives and transplants, the latter decades away from moving here in droves.

Charles Price, one of best to ever write about golf, lived in Pinehurst in the middle of the 20th century, as a reporter for The Pinehurst Outlook and Golf World, and visited the village three decades hence before settling here later on. “There was and is something venerable about the place,” Price wrote in Golf magazine in the 1970s, “something almost holy about its atmosphere you can’t find in the newness of Palm Springs and the clutter of Palm Beach. While Pinehurst is nowhere near as graybeard as St. Andrews, it still has a church quiet you won’t find even there.”

When I was a small boy, Pinehurst was mostly a turn we didn’t take driving over to Jackson Springs on Sundays to visit my grandmother. My parents had gone to movies in the theater when they were courting. The Pinehurst golf courses might as well have been in outer space until I got I my first set of clubs in 1969, then they became an aspiration.

I saw them before I played them, walking No. 2 for the first time as a 14-year-old spectator during the two-week-long, 144-hole World Open in 1973, the first professional golf at Pinehurst since the final North and South Open in 1951. I would carry a scoring standard in subsequent tour events — the late Bruce Edwards wouldn’t give me a golf ball one year following 18 holes with Tom Watson, which I kidded Bruce about after becoming a golf writer — and a couple of times took up gallery stakes and rope with some fellow Pinecrest students on the Monday after for $20 and lunch. It was a wonder we didn’t get gored with the sharp end of one of those metal rods, but somehow we avoided injury.

Our high school golf team got to play the No. 1 course a lot, along with occasional rounds on No. 4 and No. 5, with our matches and a local junior tournament held on No. 1. I shot a 72 in one Monday match to lead the team to what was then a school-record total, but compared with the local kids who came along a generation and two later, who could really play, ours was weak sauce. 

Getting to play No. 2 was a very special occasion, which meant that my several appearances in the Donald Ross Memorial Junior, a Christmastime staple, were fraught with nervousness. I’ve blocked out what I shot, and hope there is no surviving archive of scores, but I am sure I never broke 90. Once, when I was 22 and well past the point of knowing I would not ever earn a living with a scorecard in my back pocket, I thought I was about to get some revenge on No. 2 for those desultory December days. I was 1 over through 16 holes in a round with three good players but finished with back-to-back double bogeys, the CliffsNotes of a career that never really was.

That was my Pinehurst golf background heading into the ’99 Open but far from all my history there. I was in the crowd when the World Golf Hall of Fame, adjacent to the eastern edge of No. 2, was dedicated in September 1974, with newly promoted President Gerald Ford part of the ceremony for the original 13 inductees.

Seven years later, immediately after graduating from Carolina, I worked at the WGHOF in a brief stint as a greenhorn public relations director. My duties included writing press releases, making appearances with television hosts Lee Kinard of WFMY and Jim Burns of WECT to promote the Hall of Fame Tournament, and putting out buckets under a perpetually leaky shrine-building roof.

We were doing the tournament, which almost didn’t happen because of a lack of funds, on the cheap, and if you watched a commercial for the event that had a close-up of driver meeting golf ball, that was me making contact with my persimmon MacGregor on the fifth hole. It was a good strike, but rest assured not like the prodigious pokes Davis Love III made going around No. 2 in winning the 1984 North and South Amateur, an awesome driving display of accurate power that stands out many years later.

In 1988, our rehearsal dinner was at the Pine Crest Inn, wedding ceremony at Community Presbyterian Church, reception at the Manor Inn. We spent our honeymoon night in the Carolina Hotel, the start of a decade-long marriage that ended in divorce about six months before the ’99 U.S. Open.

While some homeowners in the Sandhills were getting many thousands to rent their houses to visitors for the week of the Open, my mother got enough from Golf World to buy two new mattresses so photographers Steve Szurlej and Gary Newkirk could bunk upstairs with me in our house not far from downtown Southern Pines. (Most of the magazine staff stayed in a rental house in Pinehurst.) It really felt like old home week when I pulled my rented Chevy into the media lot, a.k.a. Pinecrest High School, where for junior and senior years I had parked my aging Ford.

Having covered the Tour Championship and U.S. Senior Open at No. 2, as well at the U.S. Women’s Open at Pine Needles, within the previous decade, I was no stranger to returning to my hometown on assignment. This time, though, given the gravitas of the event and my place in life — just turned 40 and newly divorced, writing for a publication I’d grown up reading and wanting to work for — it felt a bit like swinging a club with a weighted doughnut around its neck.

Photograph from the Tufts archives

Photograph from the Tufts archives

Payne Stewart was just slightly older than me, 42, married and the father of two. He certainly had been a constant presence on the PGA Tour in my golf photography and writing career, known for his old-fashioned swing, the plus fours he wore on the course, liking a good time and, more than occasionally, not treating everyone with kindness. One contemporary of Payne’s told me he was the only fellow pro he ever wanted to punch — not once but twice — and for every memory of a fun-loving competitor is a recollection of when Stewart, a good harmonica player, was off-key, arrogant, churlish.

Stewart’s ability to get over the hump with his manners seems, by most accounts, to have lagged behind his transformation into a tournament winner, which came after lots of close calls that earned him an “Avis” nickname. Once that moniker was mostly history, Stewart still had more than twice as many career runner-up finishes as victories (11), a reality that might have been related to his attention deficit disorder, which was undiagnosed until 1995.

Dr. Richard Coop, a UNC-Chapel Hill education professor and a pioneering golf psychologist, worked with Stewart starting in 1988 and became a dear friend and confidante of his. I got to know Stewart a bit through Dr. Coop, with whom I collaborated on magazine columns and Mind Over Golf, his primer on how to become a better golfer through a sound mental approach. Stewart wrote the foreword for the book, published in 1993. The year after he began seeing Dr. Coop, Payne won his first major, the 1989 PGA Championship. He got some help that day at Kemper Lakes from a poor finish by Mike Reid, and Stewart’s behavior as Reid struggled home was indicative of his immaturity.

Stewart won the 1991 U.S. Open before winning the 1999 edition in Pinehurst, John Garrity in Sports Illustrated writing that while he was among more than a dozen golfers to win two U.S. Opens in a decade, he was the first to do it with two personalities. That was certainly a popular theme around the time that Stewart won in Pinehurst, his demeanor change credited to a newfound Christianity, old-school maturity and a talking-to from his mother, Bee. “I gave him an attitude adjustment,” she told Sports Illustrated. “He’s learned you can’t go around being rude to everyone.”

There was no doubt the fellow who put on a costume every time he teed it up was a real human being, complex to the core.

That made him no different, really, than the golfers with whom he would spar that fateful Sunday in Pinehurst: Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh, Tiger Woods, David Duval.

Any doubts that No. 2 would stand up as host to its first professional major in 63 years were quelled that Thursday when, after an inch of rain Wednesday night, no one torched the place — a quartet of 3-under 67s including Mickelson and Duval leading with Stewart and Woods among those at 68. The ground got firmer and the flagsticks were tucked as the week went on, the ingredients mixing for a fantastic finish on a misty Sunday that could have been ordered by course designer Donald Ross, a native Scot.

Arguably the closely cut grass around the turtleback greens could have been slightly taller to encourage more chips and fewer putts from the fringes, but it still was the most distinctive U.S. Open setup in years, with everything from fairway woods to lob wedges utilized around the putting surfaces, the heart and soul of No. 2.

“It’s not the hardest course I’ve ever played,” said Tom Watson, who won the tour event at Pinehurst in 1978 and ’79, “but it may be the hardest to get the ball close to the hole on the green.”

Through 54 holes Stewart was the only player under par, at 209. In search of his first major and with his wife, Amy, expecting their first child that had him a beeper away from departing, Mickelson was one back with Tiger and Tim Herron at 211. Duval, Singh and Steve Stricker were three behind. The only logjam was on the leaderboard, as pre-Open fears of the village and surrounding towns being overwhelmed by traffic never materialized. Shop and restaurant owners, in fact, were disappointed that customers seemed to be scared away by the imagined congestion.

The golf did not disappoint, though, particularly as the fourth round simmered into a stew of stars. The often-seen attrition of leaders in an Open was replaced with clutch play. Stewart and Mickelson each closed with 70s, as did Woods, with Singh shooting 69. Only Duval sputtered to the clubhouse, with a 75. The final two hours were the very definition of golf drama, the protagonists and plot ranking up there with other great finales in the championship’s history, roars reverberating through the pines, Augusta-like, as if a dormant stage had reopened for the finest actors of the day to perform.

Mickelson and Stewart swapped the lead half a dozen times over the final nine. Woods was never far away either, and when he birdied the par-4 16th to pull even with Stewart one behind Mickelson, the game was truly on, the outcome in doubt. Stewart’s personality, while making it difficult to maintain his focus week in and week out for a whole season, also allowed him to exhibit keen concentration for short periods, particularly under difficult circumstances. (It is not unlike an average golfer being able to execute a fine recovery shot through a gap in the trees because a small, defined target narrows his focus.)

Stewart, wearing a waterproof jacket from which he had scissored off the sleeves himself so his classic swing wouldn’t be constrained, was never more focused than on the last three holes at Pinehurst on Sunday. He faced a double-breaking 25-footer for par that went uphill and then downhill on the 16th, and sank it as if it were for kicks on the putting clock on Tuesday morning. He converted a 3-footer for birdie on the par-3 17th after a gorgeous 6-iron, a birdie Mickelson hadn’t been able to match from inside 10 feet after a wonderful tee shot of his own.

On No. 18, Stewart’s drive finished in a gnarly lie in the wet, right rough. In the distance the chimes from The Village Chapel made the air tingle. Forced to lay up, Stewart would have to pitch and putt for a winning par unless Mickelson was able to sink a sidewinding 30-footer for birdie. Phil couldn’t do it, leaving Payne 18 uphill feet to his second national championship. The stroke was pure and the roar was deafening after the ball dropped into the cup, Stewart’s fifth one-putt on the last six holes, dreamy putting on a magical day.

Arm up, leg out — a pose that became a memory and, too soon for the wrong reason, a statue.

Payne hugged his caddie, Mike Hicks, and consoled Phil Mickelson. When his press conference was over and all the pin flags were signed, Stewart got in a car, trophy at his feet, to ride to Hicks’ home in Mebane, where the hardware was their flute, champagne and white lightning flowing to toast an unforgettable day.

I retreated to my childhood house, to the desk where I used to do my homework to try to type the story. I could hear my mother and my sister downstairs, reliving their Sunday — they had attended, watching for a couple of hours in a grandstand, prior to watching the giddy finish on TV. Ten o’clock became 11 and 11 became midnight, and my laptop screen was still empty, the occasion seeming to put a tourniquet on the flow of my words. Over more than 20 years working for Golf World, I would pull dozens of all-nighters at a computer, the stories solid, sometimes even lyrical. I wrote clean copy and met deadlines. This Sunday night, though, when I most wanted to come through, while Payne Stewart was swilling bubbly in celebration, I fizzled at the keyboard.

Eventually, around a groggy sunrise, I filed my 2,000 words but they weren’t very good words. Someone at our Connecticut office had their way with them after flying back from North Carolina. I didn’t blame them for that, because the article needed more than a little TLC, but didn’t appreciate not getting a crack at making some improvements myself. My byline is on the story, but many of the sentences aren’t mine.

Monday evening, as I ate dinner with my former wife at The Squire’s Pub, homecoming week nearly over, I felt like a loser.

Time, and well-written stories, of course, changed my perception. I got to go to lots of U.S. Opens after that one, unlike Stewart, who died in an aviation tragedy about four months later. I was in baggage claim at LaGuardia Airport late on that October Monday afternoon returning from the Nike Tour Championship when the man who was driving me home said, “Awful about the golfer on the plane.” As my mind scanned for possible victims, someone nearby said, “It was the guy who wore the knickers.”

Twenty years later, I don’t think much about the bad story I filed but the good day the guy in the knickers had in the rain on No. 2. There have been other U.S. Opens at Pinehurst, with more to come, but the first will always stand out. Folks attempt Stewart’s putt and pose with a cast figure that commemorates the defining day of a life cut short. My childhood desk isn’t there for me anymore, but I can go home, where you still hear hammers, bells and, if you use your imagination, the cheers of a misty Sunday, long, loud and happy.  PS

Bill Fields has covered more than 100 major championships, including U.S. Opens at Pinehurst in 1999, 2005 and 2014.

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