ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — Payne Stewart has a gorgeous golf swing, an amazing short game, a deft putting stroke — and he looks like he fell out of a cereal box. See Payne in his NFL-colored knickers and caps, 28 teams, 28 outfits. Collect ’em all! Trade with your friends! No wonder he has a problem being taken seriously; you half-expect him to be sugar-coated.
Unfortunately, sweetness has never been one of Stewart’s problems. This was painfully apparent at the PGA Championship last year, which he won with birdies on four of the last five holes while Mike Reid was collapsing. It was Stewart’s first major championship after years of near-misses, a moment, you might think, for a little reverence. Instead, Stewart mugged for TV cameras and popped grapes into his mouth as he waited for Reid to finish his awful round. Then, minutes after Reid wrapped his press conference in tears, Stewart bounded in, short in the pants and long in the flippancy.
“Hey, I’ve played so well and come close so often, there’s a little justice here,” he said, signing autographs as he answered questions. “I asked God,
‘How about doin’ something for Payne one time?’ “
More than one mortal wanted to do something for Payne; it involved a fist and his mouth.
But then, Stewart has had this effect on people since he arrived on the scene in the early ’80s, a cocky Missouri kid with so much raw golf talent that even the veterans stood back and whistled. They predicted greatness. But year after year, Stewart showed more style than substance. He won tons of money by coming close, but he blew leads, he blew playoffs, he finished second 13 times. At the Nabisco last year, he bogeyed the last hole to fall into a tie with Tom Kite, then missed a four-foot putt on the second playoff hole to lose it. Disgusted, he threw his ball into the water, and walked 20 yards from the cameras to scream an obscenity.
You wonder what God thought of that one. Real character is hidden
But everyone deserves a chance to grow up, even a man who orders custom-made, gold-tipped Italian golf shoes, and once walked around with acupuncture needles in his earlobes. A few years ago, Stewart hired a sports psychologist to “help me learn humility” — as well as steady his last-day jitters. The latter, at least, seems to have worked. In April, having never won a playoff in his career, Stewart found himself tied after 72 holes at the Heritage Classic. He stepped inside a Port-O- Let, and stared into the mirror.
“This is a new decade,” he told his reflection. He then stepped outside, and beat Larry Mize with an 18-foot putt on the second playoff hole.
What do you say to a man who “finds” himself in the toilet? Maybe this: Hey, Payne, what NFL colors are you wearing tomorrow?
“I like to wear the local club. What’s the nearest team to Scotland? New England Patriots, I guess.”
“Hey, Payne. How about wearing the colors of one of our soccer teams?”
“Frankly, they don’t pay as much as the NFL.”
“Payne, how would it feel to win the British?”
“Here? How would it feel? God. How would it feel if you won the Pulitzer surprise?”
“The Pulitzer prize?”
“Yeah, well, you know what I mean.”
Maybe we do, and maybe we don’t. Stewart gave all these funny answers at his press conference Friday, after an excellent round — played in Green Bay Packers colors — that left him eight under midway through the British Open, behind only co-leaders Greg Norman and Nick Faldo, who are 12-under.
Yet for all the yuks, Stewart’s true character remains a mystery. What, at 33, does Payne want to be when he grows up? Was the PGA a fluke? Is he finally ready to harness his talent? Or is he content to remain a sort of Great Gatsby in football colors — a deal that brings him $200,000 a year from the NFL, plus his own bubble gum card?
“I still have a lot to prove to myself,” he said Friday. “And myself is the only person I have to prove it to.” The box, but no prize
Now, don’t misunderstand: American golf could certainly use more color, even if it is Detroit silver or Raiders black. And no one should object just because the guy chews tobacco and plays the harmonica. In fact, this is all good for the game, as is Stewart’s ability with a club, which Ben Crenshaw once dubbed “the most beautiful swing on the tour.”
It’s just that, well, there’s this Jim McMahon streak in Stewart; if he ever
does live up to his talent, we might not be able to live with him. Let’s face it, one doesn’t really learn humility from a sports psychologist. And respect for the game and other players, such as Reid must be innate to be sincere.
You listen to Stewart entertain the media, and you like him. But then you watch him sign autographs for a Scottish girl, and on the third one, he says
“What are you doing, selling these?” And you wonder what he means by that, and if he isn’t thinking about the prospect himself.
This course, St. Andrews, is the most historic in the world. Should Stewart somehow win here Sunday, he should handle it with grace. He says he has grown up. You want to believe it. “There’s a lot I want to accomplish now,” he said.
“It’s like, when I die, what do I want on my tombstone?”
Forget the tombstone. We’d be happy to know which cereal box he fell out of: Lucky Charms — or Frosted Flakes?