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Where Have All Our Champions

By Ron Green Jr.

Feature Photograph: Martin Kaymer (USGA/Steven Gibbons)

It has been 25 years since Payne Stewart leaned over that 20-foot par putt on the 18th green of Pinehurst No. 2 with the U.S. Open title hanging in the damp, gray Sunday afternoon air.

Phil Mickelson, who had celebrated his 29th birthday five days earlier, could only watch from beneath his white visor as the thousands surrounding the scene fell into a heavy hush. For a moment, the only sound came from a bird on a pine branch nearby.

Then a movie came to life.

Stewart’s putt fell in, he punched the air, hugged his caddie and, amid the combustible noise, consoled Mickelson, who would become a father for the first time the next day.

Pinehurst, where golf had already lived for more than a century, had its timeless moment and Stewart’s joy felt contagious. It was Pinehurst No. 2’s first U.S. Open and, to borrow from Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship, one that has led to multiple U.S. Opens and a second home for the USGA.

There is, however, a bittersweet thread that runs through the four U.S. Opens hosted at No. 2 — the men played there in 1999, 2005 and 2014 and the women followed the men in 2014. The four champions — Payne Stewart, Michael Campbell, Martin Kaymer and Michelle Wie — didn’t know it at the time, but their careers would never again touch the sky like they did in Pinehurst. In fact, Stewart and Kaymer never won another tournament, while Wie (now Michelle Wie West) and Campbell managed just one more official victory in their respective careers.

Stewart died in a plane crash four months later. Campbell struggled with the attention that came with being a major champion, and his game deteriorated. Kaymer, once the top-ranked player in the world, dealt with injuries and a loss of confidence. Wie won one more LPGA title nearly four years after her Pinehurst win, but her career never equaled her celebrity.

It’s wrong to suggest U.S. Open winners at Pinehurst are cursed — golf is hard enough without introducing the occult — but the titles the four players won there largely defined careers that took curious, even tragic turns, in the aftermath. It calls to mind one of the curiosities in the village that surrounds the golf resort involving the Magnolia Inn, which has been around since 1896.

In its original form, the Magnolia was tall enough that it blocked the view of the nearby and majestic Carolina Hotel. To remedy that, the top two floors of the inn were removed so that the Carolina stood in no building’s shadow.

By essentially cutting off the top of the Magnolia, it left the hotel with a stairway that was a series of steps that led, not to a room nor another floor, but to a wall. It became known as the stairway to nowhere and, in a sense, that has been the pathway for players after they’ve won U.S. Opens at Pinehurst. What could fairly be seen as a career springboard has instead — whether coincidentally or not — become more of a jumping-off point.

That’s not to suggest that, with five more U.S. Opens scheduled at No. 2 through 2047, something strange is going on, but it has produced a peculiar pathway from the top of golf’s mountain to whatever comes next.

Stewart’s story is tragic and familiar. He was one of golf’s stars, both cocky and charismatic, with a golf swing that angels might envy. Stewart dressed the part, wearing plus-fours and a flat cap, and there were times when his ebullience was more annoying than entertaining.

He had, however, begun to grow into a different man when he won the U.S. Open at Pinehurst. Faith played a larger role in Stewart’s life and his sense of seeing beyond himself was demonstrated in the instant when he put his hands on Mickelson’s face mere seconds after breaking the left-hander’s heart on Pinehurst’s 18th green and gave him a message of joy about becoming a father.

Three months later, Stewart led the American celebration after a rowdy victory in the Ryder Cup at The Country Club outside Boston, the happiness practically dripping off him like the champagne being sprayed.

Then Stewart was gone, leaving a forever hole in the Pinehurst story, but his achievement and the spirit in which he accomplished it live on. Taking a photo alongside the bronze statue behind No. 2’s 18th green of Stewart’s reaction upon holing the winning putt — right leg kicked behind and his right fist punching the air — has become part of the Pinehurst experience for visitors.

Six years after Stewart’s win, New Zealander Michael Campbell arrived at the U.S. Open after narrowly qualifying. He’d earned his spot by birdieing the last hole in a European qualifier at Walton Heath in England, holing a 6-foot putt that would ultimately help redefine his career.

Imagine if Campbell missed and never made it to Pinehurst.

Campbell was a world-class player, having won six times on the European tour and with an admirable habit of showing up on major championship leaderboards, but like everyone else in the 2005 U.S. Open, he arrived in the immense shadow of Tiger Woods.

Photographs: J. D. Cuban/Courtesy USGA Museum, USGA/John Mummert, USGA/Matt Sullivan


When Sunday arrived, Campbell was one of several players chasing third-round leader Retief Goosen, who was 18 holes away from winning his third U.S. Open title in six years. When Goosen stumbled in with a disastrous closing 81, Campbell outplayed Woods, who bogeyed the 16th and 17th holes, clearing the path for Campbell.

If Stewart’s victory became the stuff of legends, Campbell’s win seemed more a victory for one of golf’s working class. Half a world away in New Zealand, Parliament paused to watch Campbell’s victory.

Three months later, Campbell won the HSBC World Match Play Championship, and he seemed to be riding a rainbow. But, like rainbows, Campbell quickly faded. His game went flat, he injured a shoulder lifting his luggage in the Hong Kong airport, and 10 years after his greatest triumph, Campbell retired for a time from competitive golf.

When Campbell showed up at the 2019 U.S. Senior Open, he had a spot earned through his former glory rather than recent performance.

“I’m just starting out with no expectations,” he said.

Campbell rekindled friendships and felt the competitive juices again but, now 55 years old, his tournament golf is limited to senior events in Europe these days.

Pinehurst must feel like a lifetime ago.

Kaymer’s tale remains more open-ended but, to use today’s parlance, he’s trending in the wrong direction. At age 39, Kaymer is entering the netherworld in competitive golf, beyond his prime but still young enough to believe he can dig out what he once had.

It’s possible that Kaymer reached No. 1 in the world rankings with less attendant fanfare than any player ever. Even now, ask ardent fans to name players who have won the U.S. Open, the PGA Championship and the Players Championship and, chances are, few will come up with Kaymer’s name. He was No. 1 for eight consecutive weeks in early 2011, the impact of his PGA Championship victory the year before helping to catapult him there. The numbers said one thing, but Kaymer felt something different inside.

“At that time I didn’t (feel like No. 1) because I never made the cut at Augusta. I never felt comfortable in Augusta just fading the golf ball. When I said to my coach after missing the cut for the fourth time in a row, how can I be No. 1 in the world if I can’t hit any shot? I didn’t feel like the best player in the world,” Kaymer said.

In 2014, better able to move the ball in both directions, Kaymer won the Players Championship in May, then dominated the U.S. Open at Pinehurst, winning by eight strokes. Playing the new No. 2 as retouched by Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore, Kaymer separated himself with brilliant ballstriking and a willingness to putt over and around the slopes when he missed No. 2’s famously difficult greens.

“It was probably the best week of my career I would say,” Kaymer said.

Kaymer would play 27 more major championships after Pinehurst and he managed just one more top-10 finish.

Left: Michael Campbell (USGA/Steven Gibbons)

Middle: Michelle Wie West (USGA/John Mummert)

Right: Payne Stewart (USGA/John Mummert)


Playing on the LIV Golf tour now, the German-born Kaymer is raising his family in Europe and is happy with the choices he has made. When he returns to Pinehurst, it will be with fond memories but different expectations.

“Back then there were no scar tissues,” Kaymer said.

The week after Kaymer’s runaway victory, the U.S. Women’s Open followed at No. 2, the first-ever back-to-back national championships played on the same site. Intent on allowing nature to dictate the course setup, No. 2 played firm and fast while turning from green to brown.

Until that hot week, Wie West’s star power had always exceeded her professional achievements. Since her teenage years, she had been the face of women’s golf but, after her headline-catching tee times in men’s events, she settled into an LPGA career that never caught up to the expectations.

Except that one week at Pinehurst.

On Sunday of the men’s U.S. Open, Wie West and Jessica Korda walked 18 holes watching Kaymer and Rickie Fowler in the final pairing, imagining making a walk like Kaymer’s up the final fairway. One week later, it happened but not until Wie West double-bogeyed the 16th hole to see her three-stroke lead drop to one stroke. No stranger to drama, she responded by holing a long, double-breaking birdie putt on the par-3 17th hole to help seal the most meaningful victory of her career.

“The walk from my second shot to the green, I wish it could’ve lasted for hours, for days. It was the best walk I’ve ever had — well, outside of the walk to the altar and stuff like that,” Wie West said during a return visit to No. 2 last year.

She took a walk with her memories around the closing holes at No. 2.

It’s a place where ghosts and memories tend to hang around and, as flat as the place may be, you could swear there’s a mountaintop there.

Climbing that mountain may be the hard part, but coming back down may be the stairway to nowhere.  PS

A Charlotte native, Ron Green Jr. is a senior writer for Global Golf Post and was the recipient of the 2023 PGA of America Lifetime Achievement Award in Journalism.