The first group of the 2000 U.S. Open teed off at 8:30 a.m. Thursday and for only the second time in its 100-year history, the previous year's champion was not be there to defend.
Ben Hogan was in a serious car accident and didn't have a chance to repeat his title 51 years ago, and 1999 champion Payne Stewart, who died eight months ago in a bizarre plane crash, will not grace the gorgeous fairways of Pebble Beach this weekend.
There aren't any knickers. I couldn't see a Tam O'Shanter hat. Except for Jesper Parnevik, there was no colorful clothing. I couldn't find anybody with that long-flowing classical golf swing.
Probably the most noticeable golfer of all time, physically anyway, was no where to be found on the first day of the U.S. Open, a title he won twice in his career. And not since his funeral service have I missed Payne Stewart more.
For one reason or another, Stewart became not only my favorite golfer but also one of my favorite athletes. He was one of those players you look for immediately when you glance at the leaderboard or scour the scoreboard in the paper the next day.
Whether it was his brash personality, his absolutely beautiful golf swing or his unusual attire, he became my idol. And watching CNN in my apartment on a chilly fall Minnesota day was one of the gloomiest moments of my life.
I never knew Payne Stewart. I never made conversation with Payne Stewart. I never laughed with Payne Stewart. But when you idolize someone as a youth and lose them in such unexpected circumstances, it's tough to take.
He was different. He stood out. And in today's PGA tour's player factory, that was refreshing. And he didn't care what other people thought.
First, he spoke to his fellow players, the media, the sponsors, and the fans with a sort of reckless abandon. Many players on tour didn't like him but the media loved him because he said what was on his mind. And for obvious reasons, I respected that.
Second, was his clothing. Like it or not, it was different. He wore the knickers as a tribute to players past. While he admitted the contract he signed with the NFL to wear the team's colors was a mistake, he didn't care people said about him or more specifically, that his clothing was stupid. He did what he believed.
Third, was his golf swing. Often voted as one of history's best swings, his swing was long, smooth and tempo-oriented. He didn't power through the ball like a Tiger Woods, but sailed through it with as much grace as an airborne bald eagle.
I still get tears in my eyes when I see the bagpipe salute a week after he died, when Tom Lehman delivers his speech at the tournament Payne was en route to when he crashed or when Paul Azinger gave his tribute to his best friend at the funeral.
This week brings back more memories of the fallen champion because this was where he had his greatest moments. He made the U.S. Opens his own personal quest because of his loyalty to his country and his father (the final round is always on Father's Day).
I was in the press tent the weekend Stewart won the 1991 Open at Hazeltine in Chaska. And can any golfer forget the putts he made down the stretch at Pinehurst last year?
This year's U.S. Open will probably be the last public tribute to the great golfer, but he will always live on in the memories of his greatest fans.
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