Payne Stewart’s career in golf followed a dramatic arc, from early success to long slump to legendary comeback. Author, sportswriter and journalism professor Kevin Robbins has written the first full account of Stewart’s life, and its lasting impact, in The Last Stand of Payne Stewart: The Year Golf Changed Forever.
Stewart might have had an even greater influence had his life not come to a shocking end. On a clear morning in October 1999, he boarded a Learjet in Orlando with two pilots and three other passengers, bound for Dallas. Not long after takeoff, the plane’s cabin lost pressure and all aboard lost consciousness. Robbins describes the bizarre end of Stewart’s life, and notes the golden comeback that preceded it, in the book’s prologue. Here is an excerpt.
N47BA was airborne for three hours and fifty-four minutes, most of that time on autopilot, to a score of bells, alarms, chimes, and claxons that no one heard. It covered fifteen hundred miles over eight states. US Air Force and Air National Guard pilots from three different installations intercepted the Learjet on its northwesterly journey as aviation experts calculated end-of-flight scenarios that took into account airspeed, fuel capacity and consumption, weight, heading, thrust, the direction and velocity of the wind, and vulnerable populations below. The Learjet touched an astonishing altitude of forty-eight thousand feet, the ceiling for an aircraft on the ragged edge of an aerodynamic stall, and there it bobbed like a porpoise at 540 miles an hour. In the thin air of the upper stratosphere, the temperature hovers at sixty-nine degrees below zero, with little turbulence, meaning the aircraft cruised surely and steadily, locked under its own command, until the two Honeywell TFE371s on the aft fuselage exhausted the fuel tanks on the tip of each wing. As N47BA gathered speed and neared the earth, an effect called Mach tuck pulled the nose of the Learjet farther and farther down, until the aircraft was nearly vertical.
It was a quiet scenario that, from the time the engines wound down to impact with the ground, took less than a minute to complete. The episode that killed Payne Stewart, who had reached a personal and professional apogee in 1999, commenced with no violence until, as the world watched and waited to see how it all would end, his aircraft, twirling downward like a stripe on a candy cane, met the prairie at nearly the speed of sound.
Stewart was the brash and unapologetic dandy of his day: a Jay Gatsby among the indistinguishable Tom Buchanans pounding Titleists on practice tees. He wore shortened, bloused pants known as plus fours, patterned shirts bearing National Football League mascots, elegant white golf shoes with gold tips, argyle hosiery, a flat cap, an occasional smirk. He was a colorful and complicated presence on the golf course. He was a peacock, the Missouri showman, someone who wanted to be heard and noticed and remembered and admired. He was loud in a sport that valued silence. He was cocksure in a game that promoted humility and modesty. He was too much for some of his peers who preferred less. He blamed exterior forces for interior faults. He often spoke before he thought. He acted before he thought. Then came the 1998 U.S. Open in San Francisco, where Stewart lost a golf tournament but won respect in ways that foretold the story of the summer of 1999. He was about to turn forty-two, find a new kind of peace, and, as he’d suggested in an interview that year, arrive at the conviction that his best golf, and his best life, was yet to come.
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The Last Stand of Payne Stewart: The Year Golf Changed Forever
By Kevin Robbins
Hachette Books, 299 pages, $28
Times Festival of Reading
Kevin Robbins will be a featured author at the Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading on Nov. 9 at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.. He will speak at 1 p.m. in Room 105 at the Poynter Institute. Free. festivalofreading.com.