Saturday 26 May 2018

Vincent Hogan: Augusta memories driven by street-fighter Stewart

Augusta Diary

Payne Stewart throws his hands up to the heavens during the Par 3 contest at Augusta. Photo: Getty Images
Payne Stewart throws his hands up to the heavens during the Par 3 contest at Augusta. Photo: Getty Images
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

I spent last week sleeping with the ghost of Payne Stewart above my head. Just behind the headboard, to be precise.

It's a framed picture of him in trademark plus fours and tam o' shanter hat, punching the air so hard in celebration of his most famous putt that he's almost toppling over.

Tiger Woods of the United States and Ian Poulter of England. Photo: Getty Images
Tiger Woods of the United States and Ian Poulter of England. Photo: Getty Images

Mike and Lisa, owners of our rented house in Evans, were clearly devotees. The image is taken from the '99 US Open at Pinehurst and is accompanied by a gold-plated coin, commemorating his victory.

It depicts Stewart immediately after sinking an 18-footer to squeeze out Phil Mickelson in a final round that all but became a pistol fight between the two.

Crashing

Four months after that tournament, of course, he was dead at 42. Passenger on a Learjet that lost cabin pressure, killing all on board through hypoxia, before running out of fuel and crashing in an empty South Dakota field.

With his Old Tom Morris dress-sense and easy inclination to pick a fight, Stewart touched a nerve with Americans. He was a street-fighter in a stuffy domain. Lippy and rude and, on occasion, jarringly unsporting. In short, he wore his chutzpah like a badge.

Tyrrell Hatton and Phil Mickelson. Photo: Getty Images
Tyrrell Hatton and Phil Mickelson. Photo: Getty Images

But Stewart was a human paradox too, a man who could mix ignorance and grace without any sense of contradiction. One month before his death, he was on the US Ryder Cup team that came from behind to win at The Country Club, Brookline, famously declaring in advance that Europe's players should really be caddying for the Americans.

Yet, knowing the Cup was won, he'd concede a singles match to Colin Montgomerie on 18 that he didn't have to. Montgomerie had been mercilessly baited by the galleries and Stewart just wanted it over.

And that's who Mike and Lisa honour in their guest room. A man who could be a python or a teddy bear.

Tiger and Poulter becoming bunker buddies

Saturday on hole two and Joe LaCava is still raking the sand as Tiger Woods marks his ball after a bunker shot. He asks Ian Poulter's caddy, Terry Mundy, to clean it, but something's wrong.

Clifford Roberts.
Clifford Roberts.

Tiger reckons his ball is damaged and wants to use a replacement. Poulter instantly agrees, prompting someone greenside to ask a rules official what exactly qualifies as a damaged ball.

"It can be anything, so long as they agree," he shrugs.

"And the only time players ever don't agree is in the Ryder Cup. Then they'll practically ask for a microscope!"

A golfing challenge that may well drive you off your trolley

The sweeping elevation of hole 10 has been likened to a ski slope and it's not an exaggeration.

Phil Mickelson. Photo: Getty Images
Phil Mickelson. Photo: Getty Images

As the rain sweeps in, some negotiating the descent look like they'd appreciate a hand-rail. Signs warn 'CAUTION: Slippery When Wet' and, soon enough, the dark track outside the ropes is being traversed by people who look like they're tip-toeing on ice.

How sheer is the fall? If you nudged a shopping trolley off the tee and it somehow managed to navigate the curve, chances are it wouldn't stop rolling until the green.

Phil fails to find a friend in his playing partner Hatton

Early afternoon and Phil Mickelson strides on to the 11th tee, dressed from head to toe in charcoal raingear and cursed with a matching countenance.

Strolling 20 yards behind, Tyrrell Hatton is dressed for summer - bare-armed and dark slacks with a patterned white belt. These two aren't just seasons apart, they're patently not talking. Despite a hold-up on the tee, Mickelson just stands glaring ahead, his demeanour that of a man whose day found its rhythm from an opening triple bogey.

Neither man's going to be in the Butler Cabin this week, but they could cross swords in Paris next September.If so, it won't be shoulder-patting friendly.

They palpably don't much like one another. After the delay, both leak their drives out to the right, Mickelson retrieving his tee from the turf before mumbling a sulky "fore right" that wouldn't disturb a squirrel at 10 feet.

As they march off the tee, still 20 yards apart and stewing, a friendly female voice yells after them: "Go get 'em boys!"

We stare at our shoes.

A stroll down memory lane with the game's true greats

As evening silhouettes the course, two fires burn downstairs in the clubhouse lobby.

It's furnished with old-style modesty, little ostentation visible beyond the giant silver clubhouse replica on a window table on to which the names of every Masters winner and runner-up are engraved. Upstairs, oddly, is far more of a monument to Clifford Roberts than Bobby Jones.

The club's co-founders were strikingly different men. Jones was the transcendent star, a man who hung out with Hollywood A-listers and heads of state. Roberts was a distant enigma by comparison, an investment dealer and Masters chairman for 45 years, yet little-seen or known in public.

The display cabinets are stuffed with history. Sam Snead's wedge from '54; a sterling silver Humidor awarded to '51 and '53 champion Ben Hogan; Tiger's hat and glove from '02.

Roberts once famously declared: "As long as I'm alive, golfers will be white and caddies will be black." He eventually took his own life on the course as his health declined in 1977.

Shot heard around the world sometimes falls on deaf ears

In the pine trees on 13, an official is deployed full-time to answer Augusta's most repetitive question.

From where did Mickelson (right) hit that six iron in 2010?

She answers without leaving her chair because, well, the day is long and the explanation doesn't need much animation. Just point to two narrow trunks maybe 20 feet away and chuckle about that being the spot from which he hit maybe the newest "shot heard around the world". But occasionally someone comes along who wouldn't know Mickelson from a beer.

A young couple in Michigan State hoodies arrive, wondering what hole number they've just reached. "This is 13," she answers. "You know the one where Mickelson hit that famous....." Before she can finish, the male interjects: "Oh yeah, the par three!" If looks could kill, he'd now be laid to rest in Amen Corner.

Irish Independent

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