Orlando – It was warm, balmy even as I was standing on the practice tee at Bay Hill this week. It’s a trip I make every year, a chance to catch up with friends on the PGA tour and do some advance work prior to the Players Championship. Bay Hill is loose, a comfortable stop on tour, hosted perfectly by Arnold Palmer. The players were cordial, jovial even as they prepared for the longest golf course they’ll play this year on the PGA tour.
I love going to Bay Hill each year.
I just loved it a little less this year.
I missed Payne Stewart.
Last year on Wednesday of the tournament, I saw Payne on the practice tee. He greeted me heartily, with a quicker smile than usual. I’d known Payne since the early ‘80’s and noticed the change in his personality over the years. From a brash, self-confident star on the PGA tour, to a maturing father with two major championships on his resume’, Stewart no question had become a kinder person. We walked across the tee together, and he threw his arm around me and asked “How ya doin’ Sammy?” We laughed and I had a good feeling about the length of our friendship. We’re about the same age, with children about the same age, both doing just what we wanted to do, with some success. I saw Payne 4 or 5 times after that, but never in that relaxed setting of Bay Hill, but even in those heavy congested media-blitzes that occasionally followed him around, he’d give a knowing smile when he caught my eye that said, “Catch you later.”
For Payne there is no later, but he lives on in the actions and words of a lot of guys I know around his age on the PGA Tour, and among the media who cover sports and knew him. The explosive growth of the Tour has mirrored the same in the sports world, and the amount of media around it. The last 15 years have been phenomenal, with people chasing dollars, and stories, sometimes without time for reflection. Stewart’s death gave a lot of guys a real jolt. He’s Payne Stewart, US Open champion, master of his domain, he can’t die! But he did, and maybe we all learned from it.
I mentioned how I missed Payne at Bay Hill to a friend of mine in the press corp. He said at Pebble Beach this year, early one morning, he went to the wall that overlooks the Pacific near the 18th green and just sat there for a while, because he missed Payne. This isn’t supposed to happen between the media and the people they cover. It’s supposed to be a detached observation. But it’s not.
I miss Payne Stewart.