GolfPass - The Approach | How Payne Stewart Led to Phil Mickelson
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Payne Stewart and Phil Mickelson faced off at the 1999 US Open

How Payne Stewart Led to Phil Mickelson

Before I was the conductor of the Phil train…

I was firmly aboard the Payne Stewart Express. Every sports fan has those memories growing up of specific sporting events that have been burned into our memories of a phenomenal win or crushing loss. As a young golf hound, the 1999 US Open was just that. It’s the first major I vividly remember. A boxing match between what would be one of the final times I would watch my idol play and a young up-and-comer who would cement himself as my new and future favorite golfer long before he would win his first major.

Growing up I was enamored by golf. I still have my first set of clubs I’ve ever owned. They were the individually sold single clubs with steel shafts and genuine club heads. It took me months to compile a playable set. Every time I got a new club, I was immediately in the back yard hitting plastics balls into the base of a spruce tree I would pretend was a flag and hole. I chipped and I hit and I drove countless balls into that tree from the time school got out to the time dinner was ready.

There was one golfer that I emulated above all others. The Tiger bandwagon was in its infancy. The great golfers of the 80’s were in their career twilight. But one golfer captured the imagination of this small seven year old boy hitting balls in a suburban backyard. That golfer was Payne Stewart. I was a fanatic. I would watch golf just to see how Payne swung. His subtle past parallel swing, slight left leg rock – so smooth. I would practice meticulously, all while having my pants tucked into my socks. It was the ultimate homage to the fact he wore plus fours every tournament.

The 1999 US Open.

The 1999 US Open. Pinehurst. Final round. Payne Stewart is battling a young Phil Mickelson. Me, with my wedge in hand from constantly running back and forth between hitting balls outside, sitting on the edge of my seat. They’re volleying back and forth as they come to the final few holes. It is unbelievably tense. Growing up a Jets/Mets fan from an early age, I was groomed to expect total collapses as a norm. This occasion was different. I had never seen a calmer, more collected athlete in my life than Payne Stewart. He was walking down 18, like an absolute robot. Then, Phil misses his putt and Payne sinks a long one. The burst of emotion after that ball hits the cup has been pressed into my brain. Possibly, even the landscape of Pinehurst. In that moment, I knew I had to have a rain vest. It also tipped my love of golf into a full-blown affair.

Unfortunately, Payne died shortly after that magical victory at Pinehurst. I was devastated. How often do we lose an athlete at the top of their game, especially one that is your idol? My sails were deflated. I took up the mantle as a Phil Mickelson fan. It only seemed appropriate. And from then on, it has been Phil ever since.

First baseball games…

Trips to your first football stadium, foul balls, and tailgates. People always tend to remember those. Random US Opens when you’re young and watching on TV a thousand miles away are a little more rare. This week, Phil will be trying to finally win a US Open and complete a career grand slam. It’s a tournament he has come second in a whopping 6 times. I am sure every and all broadcasters will remind us.

However, that first runner-up is the one I always go back to. When two titans of my young golf life battled it out. When an impressionable young kid got an itch to keep playing a game. A game I continue to play. It has definitely taken a back seat at various points in my life, but it’s always been there.

Golf has taught me perseverance, hard work, and patience like nothing else has. I owe it all to Payne Stewart, Phil Mickelson, and the 1999 US Open.

Cover Photo: Courtesy of USGA

Eric MacPherson knows a lot about golf, but even more about grass. Having worked in golf for what seems like forever, and going on to graduate school in turfgrass, he’s able to walk mow a green, and change the shaft in your favorite driver. He’s worked on some of the east coast’s primer golf clubs doing everything from washing carts to building brand new putting greens. He’s also volunteered at several high profile Tour events including a major and the President’s Cup. The only thing he likes more than pushing a walk mower on a crisp morning, would be teeing it off. Shoot Eric a message at eric@golfpass.co or check out his other blogs here.

Eric MacPherson
eric@golfpass.co