Payne Stewart's iconic celebratory reaction after sinking a 15 foot putt at Pinehurst No. 2 to win the 1999 U.S. Open has become one of golf's most memorable moments.
Winning a major, any major, will forever change your life (yeah, we're talking to you Charl Schwartzel). Winning the U.S. Open, however, defines you. Thanks to characteristics including a course setup that's a cross between a mine field and a grenade testing ground, the fact that any one of 7,000 golfers can qualify to tee it up on Thursday and a list of former champions that is golf's version of the '27 Yankees, the U.S. Open is the jewel of any golfer's resume.
Payne Stewart's legacy includes many fascinating and stirring bullet points, but his pair of U.S. Open Championships will always be the first line of his golfing curriculum vitae.
Stewart won his first major in 1989 at the PGA Championship at Kemper Lakes Golf Club in Illinois. He erased a six-stroke deficit after three rounds to beat a gaggle of solid veteran ball-strikers, including maybe the hottest golfer at the time, Curtis Strange. Two years later, he won the first of two U.S. Opens, this one at Hazeltine National Golf Club in Minnesota. It took him an extra day and 18 additional holes to hoist the trophy, but his 75 edged Scott Simpson by two shots in a playoff. Even U.S. Open playoffs are tougher than other majors' playoffs.
"Winning a regular TOUR event is amazing considering the competition we face each week," Stewart once said. "But winning a major title is the pinnacle of any golfer's career. When that title is a U.S. Open, well, it's hard to explain how much that means to me or any golfer who's put so much into this game."
As great as his first two majors felt, Stewart's crowning achievement on the golf course came at Pinehurst No. 2, a track as famous as any in America. It was the perfect venue for Stewart's perfect moment, a white-knuckle 15-foot par putt on the 72nd hole to nip Phil Mickelson at the tape.
Only the fraternity of major champions understands what it feels like to walk up to the final hole with a chance to claim their legacy. Only a major champion has that feeling of ultimate accomplishment as they pose for photos holding their trophy or donning their bright green jacket.
No one in the history of the sport knows more about success -- and failure -- at major championships than one of the inaugural winners of the Payne Stewart Award, Jack Nicklaus. The Golden Bear won an incredible 18 majors and finished second in 19 others. Please re-read the last part of the sentence. He finished second in 19 majors. Nineteen. One. Nine. That's the Buffalo Bills, plus Greg Norman, plus Thomas Dewey (Presidential hopeful), plus every bridesmaid, plus kissing your sister . . . you get the picture. Second place stings. Payne Stewart finished second in four majors and was top 10 in nine overall, making the three successful runs all the more special.
Nicklaus relished the big moments, the monumental putts (see: Sunday at the 1986 Masters at the tender age of 46) and embraced the pressure like no golfer in his era. There are many criteria that must be met for a golfer to be honored with the Payne Stewart Award. Winning major championships isn't one of them. But it certainly doesn't hurt.
The Payne Stewart Award's other two recipients in 2000 -- Byron Nelson and Arnold Palmer -- claimed multiple majors. So did 2003 recipient Tom Watson, including a record five British Opens. Tom Lehman, the latest winner of the award, won the 1996 British Open after giving up final round leads in two previous U.S. Opens and Hal Sutton, 2007 recipient, handed Nicklaus one of those 19 second-place showings at the 1985 PGA Championship.
Nick Price, winner of the Payne Stewart Award in 2002, won a pair of PGA Championships and a British Open. The 2006 award winner, Gary Player, won nine majors and a career grand slam. And other than perhaps Payne Stewart, nobody won big tournaments looking more fashionable than did the Black Knight.
As iconic as the victory celebration of Payne Stewart's U.S. Open winning putt at Pinehurst has become, Ben Crenshaw's teary eyed reflection on No. 18 at the 1995 Masters might be as memorable. Playing his favorite tournament just a week after his longtime mentor Harvey Penick had passed away, Crenshaw claimed his second green jacket by one shot over Davis Love III. It had been his instructor and friend Penick who helped Crenshaw craft one of the game's smoothest-ever putting strokes, a skill that made him a favorite each year on the lightning-fast greens at Augusta National. That win is now Gentle Ben's first line of his resume and another reason he was so deserving of the Payne Stewart Award.