Tuesday 17 September 2019

Dermot Gilleece: 'Stewart remembered with enormous affection'

Payne Stewart was a hugely popular figure in Waterville. Photo: Getty Images
Payne Stewart was a hugely popular figure in Waterville. Photo: Getty Images

Dermot Gilleece

One of the first actions by American visitors to Waterville GC these days is to have commemorative photos taken with the bronze statue of Payne Stewart behind the ninth green. Like the rest of us, they can hardly credit that it's 20 years this weekend since he played his last Major championship.

That was in the PGA at Medinah Country Club. Ten years earlier, in 1989, he won the PGA at Kemper Lakes before going on to win the US Open at Hazeltine National two years later, prior to his first visit to this country. No American golfer has since had such a lasting impact here, most notably in Kerry where locals took him to their hearts.

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A Monday finish at Hazeltine saw Stewart beat Scott Simpson in a play-off for the title, so leading to very awkward scheduling, given his commitment to play in the Irish Open at Killarney later that week. There was no suggestion, however, that the newly-crowned champion considered withdrawing.

In fact, he was tied for the lead at the half-way stage in Killarney before jet-lag began to take its toll and he eventually slipped to a share of 16th place behind the winner, Nick Faldo. More memorable, however, was his demeanour throughout the tournament. Locals were drawn to this warm-hearted American who dressed in decidedly odd, even garish clothes, characterised by plus-twos, or knickers as they call them in his part of the world. And Stewart responded by kissing, hugging and shaking hands with all-comers, as appropriate.

A contract with the American NFL meant he would wear the colours of the various teams in the league. Sometimes this would mean outrageous combinations of colours, leading to the memorable spectator comment: "Gee, Payne looks good enough to eat today."

Retaining fond memories of Killarney, he returned to Ireland as a guest of JP McManus and Dermot Desmond prior to the 1998 Open Championship and gained the distinction of having a hole-in-one on the short third at Ballybunion. A month later, he was back here once more for the Smurfit European Open at The K Club where he failed to make the cut.

Then came his final Irish visit in July 1999. Inevitably, it had resonances of Killarney '91 in that he was here once more as the reigning US Open champion, having beaten Phil Mickelson for the title at Pinehurst No 2 the previous month. During a memorable final round, he presented quite a figure in a windcheater from which he publicly removed the sleeves with a scissors, just before heading to the first tee.

As before, much of his time was spent in Waterville where he is reported to have entertained and delighted both his US Tour colleagues and locals with rousing tunes on the harmonica. By way of response, Waterville GC decided to make him honorary captain for the year 2000, a distinction he was delighted to accept.

On the Friday, he flew by helicopter to play the Old Head of Kinsale in the company of Tiger Woods, David Duval, Mark O'Meara, Lee Janzen and Stuart Appleby, the most distinguished six-ball ever to grace Irish golfing terrain.

They set off in dense fog and I had the good fortune to walk the 18 holes with them. The sun had broken through by the 12th and it was a beautiful day when they came up the 18th. That was where they played off a very back tee with a vertigo-inducing, sheer drop of 300 feet to churning Atlantic breakers below. In the event, moments after being told by a caddie that Michael Jordan had reduced the hole to a drive and nine iron, Stewart delivered of his Sunday best into a fresh breeze, yet didn't quite make the fairway.

Feigning anger and alarm in equal measure, he exploded: "Michael Jordan never hit this green with a nine iron." And after a beautifully-struck four-wood second shot with his characteristically lazy swing, he continued to mutter: "Michael Jordan never . . ."

After departing these shores, he knowingly drew ridicule on himself with an outrageous comment in the build-up to the Ryder Cup that September, claiming of the Europeans - "On paper, they shouldn't be caddying for us." When Darren Clarke joined the queue of players offering to carry his bag, Stewart laughed as heartily as anyone.

Two days prior to an ill-fated clash at Brookline, Waterville officials met him to formally confer honorary captaincy for the following year. They then acknowledged his love of fishing in the upper lakes in the company of Jay Connolly and local gillies, Paddy Carey and Vincent O'Sullivan, through the presentation of an inscribed, hand-made fly-fishing rod.

"Payne was thrilled to accept it and greatly appreciated the unique honour which we bestowed on him," recalled Paul Mulcahy, the 1999 captain. "On visits to every bar in the village he made others feel good. For instance, his arrival in 1998 was about six months after the dreadful tragedy to the Fogarty family in the hurricane of Christmas 1997.

"That was when Damien Fogarty was killed and his younger brother, Patrick, was badly injured after a building fell on them. On being told of the tragedy, Payne visited the house to offer his condolences. A few days later, he was dining in the Shieling Restaurant with Tiger Woods and Mark O'Meara when he was told that Patrick was about to return home from hospital.

"Whereupon the three of them went to the Fogarty house on his suggestion and they were sitting there waiting to greet Patrick on his arrival home. As you might expect, the young man was overwhelmed by the gesture, not least because he happens to be a very keen golfer."

Stewart made his last visit to these islands for the Alfred Dunhill Cup at St Andrews in October (7-10) in an American side which also included O'Meara and Tom Lehman. By the time of his death in a freak air accident on October 25, he had amassed US career earnings of €11,737,008 which would leave him at roughly 160th in the current all-time money list.

Meanwhile, down Waterville way, memories remain vibrant of a player who graced his chosen pursuit with wonderful skill, vitality and an irrepressible sense of fun.

Recent winners bid to add to their Irish PGA tallies

The very fact of a 109th staging at Bunclody GC, starting on Tuesday, speaks volumes for the status of the Irish PGA Championship. And the quality of its winners offers telling embellishment.

Fifty years ago, I happened to cover the victory by Jimmy Martin at Dundalk GC, where he described his performance as the best four competitive rounds he had ever played. This from a player with three European Tour titles to his credit, along with a Ryder Cup appearance in 1965.

Even after carding rounds of 68, 65, 67, 68 on that occasion, Martin still needed two holes of a sudden-death play-off to beat Jimmy Kinsella for the title. This time around, the €24,000 event is reduced to 54 holes, but the standard is likely to remain similarly strong.

Over the years, the championship has attracted the country’s best, starting with Royal Dublin’s Michael Moran, who remains the only competitor to win five-in-a-row. Then came Harry Bradshaw and Christy O’Connor Snr, who share the record of 10 victories each, followed by Des Smyth and Pádraig Harrington, who are both six-time winners.

Simon Thornton, who won for a second time at Galway Bay last year, is aiming for a third national victory. He is joined by other recent champions in Tim Rice, Damien McGrane, Michael McGeady, David Higgins and Niall Kearney.

Interestingly, when Kearney successfully defended the title in 2015, his aggregate of 266 at Dundalk was only two strokes better than Martin’s of 1969, yet he won by no fewer than 14 strokes, albeit on an extensively refurbished layout.

Rice, the 2017 winner at Moyvalley, describes Bunclody as “spectacular and truly novel — symbolic of the Celtic Tiger.” He added: “Its final six holes ranks among the best closing stretches in Europe.”

The novelty stems from the elevator which takes competitors from the green on the short 17th to the tee on the long 18th, a rise of about five storeys. A walking route is available should the lift be out of order, but the elevation should be considered in the context of the 70-foot rise from tee to green on the 18th at Augusta National.

Launched in 2009, its inventive par-72 layout stretching to 7,164 yards, was designed by Jeff Howes and incorporates attractive and challenging changes in elevation, especially over a closing stretch dominated by the 468-yard par-four 16th.

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