Payne Stewart triumphs at Pinehurst to win the 1999 U.S. Open
By: Claudia Mazzucco – On June 20, 1999, Payne Stewart became the first player in the 99-year history of the U.S. Open to win on the 72nd hole with a par putt. Separated by one stroke, Stewart and Phil Mickelson were the last pairing for the last round; at one under, Stewart was the only player in the field below par. Tiger Woods was two back, tied for third with Tim Herron.
Tiger set the tone for the last day with a birdie on the first hole, but Stewart answered with one of his own, pushing his lead to two. Mickelson made a 25-footer on the 7th hole – his only birdie of the day – and cut the lead by one. When Stewart bogeyed the par-5 10th hole, he and Mickelson were tied atop the leaderboard.
Payne drove into a nasty lie in the right rough on the long par-4 12th hole and had to pitch out. The ensuing bogey gave Mickelson a one-stroke lead. Stewart buried a 15-footer for birdie on the 13th and reclaimed a share of the lead at one under. At 16th, Stewart ran his third shot 25 feet past the hole. He made the putt for par. It was an improbable, double-breaking downhill putt. Mickelson pulled his approach too hard from 226 yards into the rough short and right of the green. He left his chip eight feet short. He missed the putt and they were again tied with two holes to go.
With honors at the par-3 17th, Stewart hit a 6-iron to four feet. Phil hit his 7-iron to six feet but missed the putt to the right. Payne made the putt for birdie, and in the span of twenty minutes has gone from one down to one up. In the last hole, Payne missed his drive into the right rough by a foot. There was no way he could get to the green. He hacked out of the fairway, leaving himself 77 yards from the flag. He hit a lob wedge 15 feet below the cup. Meanwhile Mickelson found the fairway and from 178 yards hit a 7-iron to 30 feet right of the hole. Putting first Phil missed by an inch or two.
It was apparent that there will be a playoff on Monday. And Johnny Miller – the NBC analyst who was in the booth with Dick Enberg – started to wonder if Phil would ever be able to play the next day. Back home, in Scottsdale, Arizona, Amy started to have contractions on Friday and Phil was willing to drop the pursuit of his first major if Amy went into labor. His caddie, Jim (Bones) Mackay, carried a beeper in his pocket that would register a message from Amy that delivery was imminent. Phil vowed to walk off the course at any minute to board a private plane and rush home to his wife’s side for the birth of their first child, Amanda. Already Amy and her doctor delayed delivery by a day with medication on Saturday night. She watched the final round on the sofa with her pelvis propped up on pillows to prevent the baby dropping any further.
Back to the 18th green, Stewart said (in his victor’s press conference), “I kept my head still on that putt. And when I looked up, it was about two feet from the hole. It was breaking right in the center and I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe that I’d accomplished another dream of mine.”
When his 18-foot par putt disappeared into the hole, he pumped his fist twice in the air. Then he turned to his caddie Mike Hicks and screamed above the cheering throng around the 18th green. He cried. Hicks jumped in his arms to celebrate. Next, he grabbed both sides of Mickelson’s face and said to him: “Good luck with the baby. There is nothing like being a father.”
“Payne could immediately empathize with Mickelson. Payne knows the agony of defeat. Who knew it more than him?” Paul Azinger, Stewart’s best friend.
Behind the green Stewart has a long, tearful hug with his wife. It was the most dramatic U.S. Open of the decade. It was also the first Open played at Pinehurst No. 2, Donald Ross’s masterwork in the Sandhills of North Carolina.
Mickelson arrived home at midnight. Amy went into labor the next morning, about the time Phil would have been warming up for a playoff. Amanda was born that evening.
In an unimaginably tragic turn, Stewart wouldn’t live to see the end of the year. Four months later, on October 25, he was flying from Orlando to Houston for the Tour Championship when the private jet he and five others were flying lost cabin pressure, incapacitating the pilots and passengers and sending the plane on a ghostly four-hour flight until it crashed into a field in South Dakota, killing all six aboard.
Stewart’s celebratory pose would eventually be commemorated by a statue behind the 18th green at Pinehurst.
Claudia M. Mazzucco is a researcher at Golf Channel and teacher of History of Golf at the PGA of Argentina, in Buenos Aires. She is the author of Legendary Lessons (2016), El Golf de los Tiempos, A Novel (2002) and The Guide of Golf Courses in Argentina (2003). She received the PGA Award from the PGA of Argentina in 2005