Golf

The Tragic Death of U.S. Open Champion Payne Stewart

The golf world watched 21 years ago this week as Payne Stewart calmly drained a 15-foot par-saving putt on the 72nd hole at Pinehurst to earn his second U.S. Open victory. Three months later, Americans watched with pride as Stewart and his U.S. Ryder Cup teammates pulled off a stunning final-day upset of the Europeans. A few weeks later, a horrified nation watched as a plane carrying Stewart flew aimlessly across the country, eventually crashing in a South Dakota field. Here’s a look back at the final few months of Payne Stewart’s life.

Payne Stewart captures the 1999 U.S. Open

RELATED: Phil Mickelson’s Greatest Shots and Funniest Moments on the PGA Tour

When Payne Stewart stepped on the first tee box in his traditional plus four-knickerbockers in the final round of the 1999 U.S. Open with a one-shot lead over Phil Mickelson, he couldn’t help but have flashbacks to a year earlier. In the 1998 U.S. Open, Stewart led from the opening round of the tournament until Sunday, when he started the final round with a four-stroke advantage. He lost by a single stroke.

A year later, Stewart and Mickelson matched shot for shot throughout the day. On the 17th hole, Mickelson made his par to remain even for the tournament. Stewart drained a 15-foot birdie putt to take a one-shot lead heading into the 72nd hole of the U.S championship.

On the 18th, Stewart drove his tee shot into the right rough, which resulted in a terrible lie. Payne Stewart-of-old would have gone for the green. Not on this day. Stewart laid up short of the green about 80 yards from the hole. On his third shot, Stewart lofted the ball, it bounced softly, and stopped 15 feet short of the hole. 

After Mickelson missed his birdie attempt, which would have tied him with Stewart, the veteran stepped up and calmly drained the 15-footer to save par and win the championship. Immediately after his initial celebration, Stewart approached Mickelson, whose wife Amy had gone into labor and was expecting their first child, and put his hands on Mickelson’s face.

”You and Amy, you take good care of your baby,” Stewart told him. 

Stewart celebrates an American victory at the Ryder Cup

RELATED: Why European Golfers Are Bashing Former Ryder Cup Captain Paul Azinger

Three months after winning his second U.S. Open and third major title, Stewart was a member of the U.S. Ryder Cup squad facing off against the Europeans in Brookline, Massachusetts. Before the match, tensions were high as members of the U.S. team had made provocative comments in press conferences before the event started.

Once the golfing started, the Europeans let their actions do all the talking. By Sunday’s final matches, the Europeans held a comfortable 10-6 lead and were in position to take the trophy back to Europe. The Americans, however, had other ideas and steadily chipped away at the lead. By late afternoon, the U.S. had taken the lead. The Americans claimed victory on the 17th hole after Justin Leonard drained a miracle 40-foot putt. Red, white, and blue pandemonium ensued. 

Back behind the bedlam, fans, which had mercilessly heckled Colin Montgomerie throughout the event, blasted the often frosty Scottish golfer, who was battling against Stewart in the day’s final match. Stewart had intervened throughout the round and had numerous fans ejected for their behavior. On the 18th green, before the two men had even putted, Stewart conceded the hole allowing Montgomerie to escape without enduring any additional heckling from fans.  

Payne Stewart dies in tragic plane crash

RELATED: Jerry Sloan Cheated Death in Plane Crash Years Ago

A month after the Ryder Cup, Payne Stewart boarded a private jet in Orlando with five others on a flight bound for Dallas, Texas, where he first planned to do some course design work, before heading down to Houston for the year-ending Tour Championship. The plane never made it to Texas.

Shortly after takeoff, the cabin depressurized. All those on board, including the pilot and co-pilot, fell unconscious. Instead of making a left turn toward Texas, the plane continued flying straight over the nation’s heartland and climbed to 50,000 feet. CNN covered the unfolding tragedy live and described it as a “ghost plane.” 

During the doomed flight, multiple fighter jets were scrambled. Once they neared the plane, the fighter pilots tried communicating with the plane to no avail. The pilots described windows that appeared to be “opaque” as if condensation or ice had formed the inside the cabin.

Several hours later when the jet ran out of fuel, it crashed into a desolate area near Mina, South Dakota. All six members on board perished. Payne Stewart was 42.