When Payne Stewart Came to Delaware

At this week’s US Open, the USGA recognized the late Payne Stewart with its highest honor, the Bob Jones Award. TSD contributor and golf enthusiast John Riley shares his memories of Payne’s visit to Delaware.

The handsome golf star in the retro beige knickers (known as “plus fours”), white golf shirt and Tam O’Shanter cap stepped to the first tee at the old Hercules Country Club July 25, 1988 and announced to the crowd, “Remember, this swing just got in from Paris.” At that point Payne Stewart executed one of golf’s most beautiful swings and proceeded to top the ball about 20 yards in front of him. He immediately chased after the ball, picked it up and ran back to the tee. He then politely asked the three LPGA players he had just challenged to a match for his knickers if they would allow him a mulligan. This time the ball flew off the tee and landed some 260 yards away in the center of the fairway. Minutes later he struck a perfect wedge shot from 100 yards and everyone watched in amazement as it went directly into the hole. The challenge match against LPGA stars Chris Johnson, Cindy Figg-Currier and Debra McHaffie had begun and Payne had the fans and the female pros right where he wanted them.

With the US Open returning to Pinehurst this week, no doubt there will be many remembrances of Payne Stewart and the 1999 tournament – considered to be one of the greatest ever played. As they came down to the final holes Stewart was tied with Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, the two greatest players of the current era. Stewart would birdie the 71st hole to take the lead and sink a par saving putt at the last before thrusting his fist into the air and embracing his caddy and then consoling Mickelson.

photo (67)Within months Stewart would be dead, a result of a freak plane accident. The News Journal [shown at left] ran the headline, “Golfer made lasting local impression” along with a photo of Payne and young Steve Pelly, a leukemia victim who had become a fixture at the annual event and with whom Payne had bonded in a big way. Stewart wrote to Steven after the tournament and said, “You are a tremendous example of courage to us all.”

By 1988 Payne Stewart had become one the elite stars and most recognizable figures in the world of golf – perhaps as renowned for his sartorial splendor as for his stellar play. For several years, the Leukemia Classic tournament committee – upon which I served — considered booking Payne as our feature golf attraction. I always voted against the idea. Stewart to me appeared to be the classic “wise guy” character – sort of the Eddie Haskell (of “Leave It to Beaver” fame) of golf. One columnist after his death said he had gone through an “admirable transformation from a sometimes arrogant and self absorbed semi-adolescent into an aware and mature and remarkably serene human.” In 1987 when Stewart won the Arnold Palmer Bay Hill Classic and donated the entire $108,000 to cancer research in the name of his late father, many of us started rethinking our view of golf’s Eddie Haskell and booked him to appear at our event.

The Leukemia Classic had started in the 70’s at Cavaliers Country Club and had typically featured local and national sports figures in a format where amateurs could contribute a couple hundred dollars to play with a celebrity. For years the event had been sponsored by the local Getty Oil refinery, but unfortunately the net proceeds were reported to be less than the expense money put up by the refinery. In 1983 local sports figure Kevin Reilly agreed to chair the event and a decision was made to move it to Hercules Country Club and add a marquee golf figure to the program to help raise the tournament profile. Over the next ten years, the tournament would net over $700,000 and bring some big golf names to the state such as Chi Chi Rodriquez, Fuzzy Zoeller, Arnold Palmer, Greg Norman, Ben Crenshaw, Fred Couples, Paul Azinger and John Daly.

So in 1988 the stage was set for Stewart to add his name to the list of Leukemia Classic stars and I had the assignment of going up to the Philadelphia airport the night before to meet him as he returned from Paris where he was playing in the French Open. I waited as the passengers exited out of Customs, but there was no Payne Stewart. Being the pre-cell phone era (how did we do it?), I found a pay phone and called his agent at Leader Enterprises in Florida – no answer. Since there were no remaining flights due in from Paris, there was nothing I could do but return home. When I got home I found his agent’s home number and learned he had no clue what had happened. With mild panic beginning to develop I heard a double beep on my phone – it dawned on me that the strange sound was the new feature that had just been added to our phone – “call waiting.” I asked the agent to hold and carefully depressed the receiver.

The snappy voice on the other end said, “Is this John Riley? John, this is Payne Stewart!” I asked where he was and what had happened. “I’m in Baltimore…missed my flight out of Paris and this was the closest I could get to Delaware tonight.” I said, “Payne, stay where you are, I’ll come to Baltimore and pick you up.” He proceeded to tell me that it would not be necessary – he had already rented a car and had directions to the hotel in Wilmington. Then, “John, heard your committee will be wearing knickers tomorrow – what color?” I told him they were light blue. “Good, then I’ll wear my beige.” Knowing Stewart had been in Europe for weeks, beginning with the British Open, I asked if he needed help with anything including laundry service. “Thanks John, but I always bring my trusty iron with me wherever I go and I’ll be up early ironing my clothes to get everything just right!” I quickly realized Payne Stewart was a different sort.

photo (68)The format the next day was for Stewart to position himself on the par three, 12th hole, hit a shot with each group and pose for a photo. Busy with activity around the clubhouse I did not see Payne all morning but word was coming back that all the participants were enjoying their time with him. Getting a break, I grabbed a golf cart and asked my mother, who was a volunteer, if she wanted to ride out with me to meet Payne Stewart. When we reached the 12th I walked up to Payne, who was talking to a small group about 100 feet away and quietly asked if he wouldn’t mind joining my mother for a photo. Suddenly Stewart’s voice elevated, “Your mom, your mom, where is your mom?” He bolted across the tee, down the hill and embraced my startled mother and kissed her while telling her what an honor it was to meet John’s mom! My shocked mother didn’t know what to do or think, but seconds later the photographer snapped the photo [shown at left] that is today positioned in the center of many photos from the Leukemia Classic on my wall.

That evening, the competition heated up in the “battle of the sexes” match – the LPGA fired a string of birdies and the match was tied going into the last. Stewart only had a short putt to finish in a tie, but to everyone’s surprise he missed – was it on purpose, perhaps? Because minutes later to everyone’s complete astonishment he declared, “A bet is a bet” and took his pants off and tossed them to Cindy. He began to scamper off towards the locker room in his jockey shorts when someone yelled for him to stop for a photo. For the next five minutes Payne posed with the committee and the LPGA players in his jockey shorts. Today you can find Payne’s photo with Cindy Figg-Currier — he in jockey shorts and she in his knickers — on the restaurant wall at Stanley’s Tavern in North Wilmington.

photo (69)

A knicker-less Payne Stewart (center), with members of the tournament committee, (from left) Mike Osberg, John Riley, Charlie McDowell, Tom Ciconte

Later that evening, almost unrecognizable in a pair of jeans, Payne auctioned off his autographed knickers with the help of 12-year-old Steven Pelly. When the bid lagged below $1000, he took his watch off and added it to the bidding, eventually raising $1500 additional for leukemia research.

The following year Payne Stewart would win his first major championship, the PGA. Not long after he added a US Open and in 1999 at Pinehurst he added his second US Open — only six players in golf history have won more. But sadly the plane accident ended his run as he seemed poised to add more glory.

Steven Pelly struggled through another two years in his fight with leukemia and eventually succumbed in September 1991 – he was only 14. When Payne Stewart died nine years later his mother, Judy, told sports reporter Tom Tomashek, “My son idolized him, Payne Stewart affected our lives in such an incredible way….it’s so terrible I can hardly stand it.”

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  • John. You missed your calling as a writer. This is such a great story about a neat guy that I got to know at Arnold Palmer’s Bay Hill Club. I had the great pleasure of playing with Payne in the Shoot Out at Bay Hill. Thanks John for sharing this fabulous story of a true American Hero. All the best. Howdy

  • John….as I’ve stated before ….don’t quit your day job just yet…but know that when you do…you’ve got a 2nd career in writing…you are a great racounter. …also pictures like the one of a Pantless Payne add a great deal to the flare of the story.

  • John, I know I have heard this story. You did such a great job of putting it in print for all to see. It brings back some good memories of times that I participated in the Leukemia tournament. One time in particular when Pat and I were both there when Arnold Palmer was the celebrity ? What a good time for us both! Outstanding job John!!