IT WAS A TRAGIC FAREWELL FOR A REMARKABLE GOLFER

ONE OF THE early news reports said only the pilots in Payne Stewart’s private jet were dead. That Stewart and the others inside might be alive, stranded in the clouds, with no way to bring the plane down. This, in America, was enough to send everyone running to the TV set or radio. We could have a real-life disaster film happening before our eyes. And, as ludicrous as the notion was, there was part of you that thought hey, Payne Stewart is a big-time personality, a sports hero, maybe he’ll grab the controls and bring that baby in. It happens in the movies, right?

Life is not the movies.

And heroes are still human beings.

The truth is, the pilots did not die first, and whatever happened up there, once the Lear jet lifted off from Orlando on Monday morning, happened very fast. The cabin likely depressurized. No one had time to react — not the pilots, not Stewart’s two agents, not Stewart himself. The temperature inside the cabin dropped to below freezing. The windows iced over. The passengers, because of the loss of pressure, were instantly incapacitated or perhaps, due to lack of oxygen, already dead.

The plane continued on a straight line, rising steadily into a meandering farewell voyage, a Viking funeral above the clouds. On auto-pilot, it cruised gently for hours, over Florida, over Georgia, over Alabama, Tennessee, Missouri and Nebraska. Several F-16’s flew alongside, trying to gauge the damage or rouse the crew. But there was nothing to be done, only fly in step, like steely pallbearers waiting for the tin casket to drop. Finally, somewhere over South Dakota, the jet sputtered, then fell from the sky. It plunged nose first into a grassy field, with not enough fuel left inside to cause a fire. Just a crash. A horrible sound. And the end of all on board and every dream they ever had.

Good-bye to William Payne Stewart, the golfer with the baggy pants and the oversized heart.

A championship season

That was his real first name, you know, William. His father used to make him write it on his entry cards at the U.S. Open, until the son became well-known enough that “Payne” would suffice. Identity was never really a problem, to be honest. From the moment he pulled on his first pair of plus-fours — having just joined the PGA Tour in 1982 and hating that two other golfers were wearing the same clothes as he — everyone knew who Payne Stewart was.

He talked big. He laughed big. He won big and he lost big. He had a wonderful swing that every duffer envied. Still, clothes made the man.

The story goes that when Stewart went to sell his house in Orlando, pop star Michael Jackson came to look at it. The owner’s name meant nothing to Jackson, until someone said “the guy who wears the knickers.”

“Oh, that guy,” the King of Pop said. “I know who he is.”

Didn’t we all? In a certain way, it was symbolic for the 42-year-old Stewart to say good-bye in a sweep above this country, and you sort of hoped he could stay up there forever. For Stewart was more than a good golfer, he was an American golfer. He injected life and spirit and individuality — you know, American traits — into a sport that seems bent on producing robots. He loved the USA. He once described himself as “the guy who puts his hand over his heart when they play the national anthem.”

At his first Ryder Cup, at Muirfield Village in 1987, he cried when they played the Star-Spangled Banner. And at his last Ryder Cup, just a few weeks ago, outside Boston, he celebrated his teammates’ come-from-behind victory the way a puppy celebrates a new toy.

Stewart won three majors in his career: the PGA and two U.S. Opens. How fitting. All American. But then, Stewart, tall and blond, did go to college at football-crazy SMU. He smoked cigars and cigarettes. He listened to Jimmy Buffett. He drank rum with his buddies.

He went through a petulant stage (common to many American men), he let early success go to his head (again, a common trait), he calmed down as he got older, got married, had children whom he adored (sound familiar?).

He was flying to Texas for another tournament when death, which he could not stop for, kindly stopped for him. The kid from Springfield, Mo., was eulogized by the president of the United States, who praised his “remarkable career and impact on his sport.”

A proud father

It is true, Stewart was known for much of his career as a bridesmaid — he finished second in more than two dozen tournaments — but that only made his winning more complete. This year, he sank a 15-foot putt on the final hole of the U.S. Open to outlast Phil Mickelson. In his elation, and through tears, Stewart congratulated Mickelson on his impending fatherhood.

“Being a father is the best thing,” Stewart told him.

This from a man who just won the U.S. Open.

You like to think things happen for a reason. You like to think Stewart had such a great year because he somehow knew this would be it.

But that is just rationalization, something we tell ourselves to ease grief. The truth is, none of us knows when our time will come. Not the poor, not the rich, not the winners or the runners-up.

You do your best while you’re here, that’s all.

Stewart always had been close to his father, a salesman who died from cancer in 1985. Once, Payne took his young daughter to visit the grave.

“Why are you crying?” the daughter asked.

“I’m crying,” Stewart said, “because I loved my father.”

Today that scene plays out again, same family, next generation. And destiny, we are reminded, is bigger than all of us. Even those in big pants with big hearts don’t get to fly forever.

MITCH ALBOM can be reached at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Listen to
“Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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