- Elizabeth Merrill, ESPN Senior Writer
- 0 Shares
The men polished off a bottle of the finest Australian rum that last weekend in Florida, watched a fight on HBO and chortled in the dark while the women and children slept. This, the boy must know.
Jon Brendle vowed, in his high-pitched Southern drawl, that Payne Stewart's son would hear every story about his daddy. He'd tell young Aaron how Payne had a way of taking everyone along for the ride, of making them feel special. How Brendle winced, but now cherishes, that New Year's night when Payne planted a giant kiss on him and said, "Jonny, I love you."
The game of golf was changing, giving way to the young and powerful. Brendle, Payne Stewart's neighbor and confidant, wondered if people would remember. Would the boy remember?
"I hate that Aaron didn't get to live that life," Brendle says. "Aaron never got to see how great his dad was because he was too young."
Aaron was 10 years old, towheaded with a Dennis the Menace streak, when his daddy died. He played with snakes, not golf clubs. But that's the thing about memories: They come in flickers, bouncing through time until someone, inevitably, fills in the gaps.
Brendle is here for that, one of two adults who could best remember what happened on Oct. 25, 1999, the day Stewart's plane crashed into a quiet cow pasture in South Dakota and all their lives changed. Brendle saw him packing through a window the night before. Aaron sees pancakes, the ones Payne made that morning for his two kids, hears a silly song he sang, sees a final wave goodbye.
Brendle hears a promise. He's scooping up Aaron, who has just been told by his mom that Payne is gone; he's placing him in his lap on a rocking chair. They're staring out at Pocket Lake, where some of the hottest golfers gravitated to in central Florida, and where Payne laughed and played and entertained. It's quiet, and Brendle and Aaron are swaying back and forth.
"You know, buddy?" Brendle told him. "It's our deal keeping Dad alive in our minds. All the great times. … It's up to me and you."
The love of a mother
Before we get into the rather cliché notion that the PGA Tour is a family, bound by a brutal travel schedule, long hours and the pursuit of one superstar, let's get one thing straight. It does not take a village to raise two children. No, Tracey Stewart could've done it, and practically did do it, all on her own.
She turns 50 later this month, and her friends and family held a surprise birthday party last weekend for the woman who was so madly in love with Payne, so unaware of how strong she could be without him. Golfers Paul Azinger and Stuart Appleby were on the party guest list. When Payne died, the tour, the dizzying lifestyle, was buried with him. But here it is, almost 10 years later, and so many of these faces whom Stewart hugged and wanted to beat the pants off are still in the family's life. We'll get to them later, because to understand the man who Aaron Stewart is now, at 20, you have to know Tracey.
"She has not even entertained the idea of dating," Azinger says. "She just focused on raising her children and doing the right things.
"You think of how much she was in the spotlight with her husband. What a glamorous life it was. And it ended in an instant. She was always a strong and independent woman, and she fell into a completely different lifestyle. But she never whined about it. She was totally there for her children."
She was barely into her 20s when she met Payne in Malaysia, before he got his PGA Tour card. By all accounts, it was love at first sight: the struggling, gregarious golfer from Missouri, the strong-willed Australian. Payne would later say it was destiny that he was shipped away on the Asian Tour. He was meant to meet Tracey.
She loved him for his sweetness, the kind-hearted person she saw deep down when he wasn't on the course in his trademark knickers. She loved the way he danced around the kitchen, singing songs he made up. That's the Payne she wanted Aaron and his older sister, Chelsea, to see, the man who called her "Lovey," who blew them kisses on that last day.
"He loved being a father," Tracey says. "I mean, to him, that was the best thing. … The night before [the crash], he said to me, 'I'm just -- I don't really want to leave.' He said, 'I just want to stay at home and watch my kids grow.'"
Yes, life was moving too fast for Payne in 1999. But Tracey wasn't about to allow it to spin out of control. When Payne became etched in history that summer, sinking a 15-foot putt to win the U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2, Aaron was safely at home, watching at a friend's house. And Tracey? She was standing in the crowd, about 10 deep.
Payne didn't know it then, that her heart was beating so hard she thought it might pound through her ears. They didn't know their time was running out.
After that late October afternoon, Tracey had two roles -- Mom and Dad -- and 10-year-old Aaron and 13-year-old Chelsea were hanging on her every move. She'd be the disciplinarian, the curfew-enforcer, the one who'd teach Aaron how to drive a car. She'd move her kids, alone, into their dream house that was being built at the time of Payne's death.
"For a couple of years there, we didn't have a lot of steaks or anything," Chelsea says, "because she didn't know how to use the grill. She had to teach herself how to grill.
"I'd definitely say she's the biggest role model I could ever ask for. She has so much strength and she doesn't even know it."
What Payne used to do
So how would she do it? Preside over the first crushes, first dates, first broken hearts? Better yet, how would she stop herself from clutching on to Aaron? They are so much alike, this boy and his father. The kindness in their eyes, the playfulness in their hearts.
"She doesn't coddle Aaron," says family friend Dr. Michael Gutierrez. "One of the things you'd expect a person who lost her husband to be is overprotective.
"I haven't seen anything like that. Tracey tells him exactly what she's thinking about everything. He's embarrassed, but Tracey isn't."
Payne had a way of making people feel comfortable, of turning a whole room with his smile. If you were a friend of Payne's, like Gutierrez was, early middle age could make a man believe that he was still a teenager. They went fishing in the Bahamas, drank in the moonlight and turned dive bars into temporary hotspots.
"We were in a little bar once," Gutierrez says, "and he had the whole place rocking. He was behind the piano and serving drinks. It was a hard act to follow."
Gutierrez sees all that in Aaron. One time, the kid sneaked up behind the doc on the golf course, wrapped him in a huge hug and made the hair on the back of Gutierrez's neck stand up. It was exactly the same thing Payne used to do.
"It's bittersweet because you miss [Payne]," Gutierrez says. "But in some ways, it's a lifeline."
At least once a year, Gutierrez takes Aaron on a trip, sort of an extended male bonding session, to talk about girls and life and anything a young man might not feel comfortable sharing with his mother. A couple of years ago, they went to Boston and made a stop in Brookline. It was there where Payne helped the Americans stage a furious comeback in the '99 Ryder Cup, winning by the closest margin possible, celebrating in a manner the Europeans found offensive. A month after that victory, Payne was gone.
Aaron climbed up on the roof, alone, and stood in the spot where the Americans partied in their gaudy burgundy shirts.
"Nobody tells him, 'OK, look, your dad's picture is here,'" Gutierrez says. "I think he searches out his dad in places.
"I've never asked Aaron if he misses his dad. It's obvious he does."
The father figures
Of course there would be male figures in Aaron's life. Right next door in Isleworth, a posh golfers' neighborhood in Florida where the Stewarts live, is Stuart Appleby. Just down the road is Lee Janzen. They'd keep tabs on the family, because that's what Payne would want them to do.
In 2004, Janzen asked Aaron if he'd play in the PGA's annual Father/Son Challenge with him. It was something he knew Payne had always hoped to do with his son. But Aaron was too young before his father died, and for the first 10 years of his life, he had little interest in golf. He was more comfortable on a skateboard or a football field.
Shortly after Payne died, Aaron told Tracey that he was quitting football and focusing on golf. He wanted to feel closer to his dad.
"I think we're all hopeful that our children will follow in our footsteps," golfer Peter Jacobsen says. "I don't care what profession you're in -- I know Payne wanted Aaron to be a golfer, at the very least a golfer who could understand and play the game."
Aaron competed in his first junior event at 13, and two years later, he was on national TV, a jangled ball of nerves next to Janzen. The kid had never played in front of so many people, but in a strange way, he liked it. He inherited his dad's competitiveness, the sense of thrill that washes over you in that final putt. When you grow up surrounded by so many great golfers, it's almost as if you expect the game to come easy. It didn't.
But that's what Payne's old friends at Isleworth were there for, to practice with Aaron, to help fill in the gaps.
Appleby teaches him about patience. He'll tell him it's something Aaron can't get enough of at this age, and that late bloomers who work hard can make it to the PGA Tour. Appleby himself didn't pick up the game until he was 14. "The game will put its arm around you if you're patient," Appleby told Aaron last week when they were out on the range. "And if you're edgy, it'll push you to the wayside."
They have more in common than they talk about, more than just golf. Appleby's first wife, Renay, was hit by a car and died in 1998. He knows the awkwardness of well-intentioned people who offer to help while knowing they can't.
"It doesn't change the times when you're going to bed," Appleby says, "and life's not the same as it was only days, weeks or months earlier."
Yes, it's tried and cheesy, but the PGA Tour is a family. Who else but a fellow golfer can relate to the suitcase existence, to the months away from the family, to the insecurity? Jacobsen made a point when he became friends with Payne to talk about everything but golf in their free time. They started a band called Jake Trout and the Flounders in the 1980s, with Jacobsen on vocals and Payne on the harmonica.
If Aaron wants to fill holes, Jacobsen says, he can pull up some of their songs on iTunes. They did two albums together, jammed with Huey Lewis, hammed it up on a corny video called, "I Love to Play." This is the man Aaron should see, Jacobsen says, the one who lived fast, only slowing to kiss his wife and babies through a fence on a golf course.
If Aaron couldn't remember that life, Payne's friends on the tour could at least give glimpses. Last year, Azinger invited Aaron and Chelsea to be special guests at the Ryder Cup in Louisville, Ky.
"He's a good kid, and a lot of guys are looking out for him," Janzen says.
"Had this situation been different, had it been me [who died] -- my son is 15 now. I feel very confident that Payne would've taken time to spend with Connor, take him golfing, take him fishing, whatever. I've read books about father-son relationships, and a son just needs to know his dad loved him and was proud of him. I know Payne told him those kind of things."
The pressure of following Payne
The story, in Chuck Cook's mind, goes like this: Payne Stewart walks into a chili parlor in Austin, Texas, brazenly orders the Triple-X pie and reacts unfavorably to it. A little background: Cook was Stewart's swing coach; he watched Stewart lift himself from inconsistency to greatness. Now he's trying to help Aaron make up for lost time and become the golfer Aaron knows, with that Stewart confidence, that he can be.
But first, young Aaron has to master the Triple-X pie. Aaron meets his coach in Austin, orders it off the menu, and shrugs off its intensity. "Ahh, it ain't that bad," he says, then turns to the heavens. "Come on, Payne! That wasn't that hot!"
Aaron had several college options, and he picked SMU, the school where his daddy played, the place where Payne's photos and legacy are prominently displayed. Payne's loyalty to the school was so deep that he was wearing his SMU ring the day he died and was headed to Dallas to discuss building a home course for the Mustangs.
What was the boy doing? Didn't he sense the eyes, the old alumni looking on, watching, hoping for flashes of Payne?
"But you're going to have to deal with [pressure] eventually if you want to play this game well," Aaron says. "If you've grown up around it, it just makes it that much easier, I think."
Cook says it's eerie, the way the father's and the son's mannerisms are so much alike. It's nothing Aaron picked up from an old video, just genetics and possibly some firmly planted memories. They stand to the ball the same. They waggle and hitch up their shorts the same way.
Payne had far too much energy for Cook to handle sometimes; he was tough, and he didn't cut his son any slack. He'd block the kid's shots in basketball; the kid would get furious. He affectionately called Aaron "Brick" when his son would drop things.
People close to Aaron wonder how he'll balance it all, the competitive fire that makes him want to do the most push-ups and laps, the schoolboy in him that says it's important to have fun. They know he'll handle it. He's Payne's son.
"I know he feels pressure being compared to his father," Cook says. "But because there's so much separation there, it's not exactly the same as somebody would have if their father was still playing.
"He loves to hear the stories. He eats it up. Being around Payne was always a happy occasion. I don't have any sadness remembering Payne other than the fact that I'm just sorry he didn't get to spend more time with his kids."
Another story, or at least a snapshot: Stewart missed the cut for a tournament the last weekend of his life, freeing him up to see Aaron play football. He watched Aaron score a touchdown.
The final place
The last link to Payne might never be connected, but we'll mention it anyway, in case the boy ever wants to visit. Jon Hoffman will be here, in his cow pasture near Mina, S.D., the final resting spot of Stewart's plane.
Hoffman's phone rarely rings for directions anymore. Land lines shifted to cell phones, and an ethanol plant opened up just down the gravel road, but very little else changes on the flat plains of Edmunds County. The first year after the crash, about 40 people made the pilgrimage. A brother of one of the Learjet's passengers sat on the cold, soft ground, looked up to the sky and sobbed. "You know, Jon?" he told Hoffman. "Everything here goes straight to heaven."
Hoffman's wife, Carla, is a religious woman, and she believes Stewart's plane ended up in this spot because it's so peaceful. Hoffman, a golf nut who has a driving range on his property, has a more staid answer: It ran out of gas.
Ten years, and the Hoffmans still think about the Stewarts. Jon saw Aaron on TV last year, playing in the father-son event again, this time with Azinger.
"I think about how his life's turned out," Hoffman says.
He steps out of his gold SUV, to an acre of land marked off by barbed wire. The good people of Mina, and of nearby Aberdeen, wanted to do something to memorialize the spot, so Hoffman wrote Tracey, along with some of the wives of the other victims, and gauged their thoughts. They decided on a rock, pulled from the earth around the crash site, with six names and a Bible passage.
Carla Hoffman kept a scrapbook with notes from the wives and clippings from 10 years that have zoomed by. In one letter, the wives say they're sorry to hear that Hoffman's father has cancer.
Hoffman used to play golf with his own dad, and loved the fact that for four hours, it was nothing but them and the greens.
"He started golfing when he was 58 years old, and he died when he was 64," Hoffman says. "He wasn't a great golfer, but we had a lot of fun."
Hoffman was up at Stewart's memorial site recently with a friend, and they wondered: What will people who stumble across this 300 years from now think? Will they know Payne Stewart was a golfer?
The boy, who's now a man, isn't compelled to come here. Maybe he never will. There are so many other places to see Payne, he says. This, he knows.
Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at email@example.com. ESPN's Tom Rinaldi, ESPN.com golf writer Bob Harig and ESPN producer Lisa Fenn contributed to this report.
Aaron Stewart was 10 when his father, Payne Stewart, died in a plane crash. Ten years later, Aaron is a college golfer, embracing the sport his father so dearly loved. He's had help getting here -- friends and family who at times filled the fatherly gaps.