Thursday, June 16, 2005


Looking forward to a fantastic weekend

If you are a sports nut like me, this weekend has a great deal to offer. For those in East Tennessee, you have the Knoxville Open, the Nationwide Tour's oldest event. If I had the time, I would have loved to have made it out to Fox Den to cheer my old classmate and former PGA Tour winner Garrett Willis. I still scan the sports wire for news of Garrett's rounds. Also for those in East Tennessee, the Tennessee Smokies are returning home from a long road trip that saw them win all seven games played, including three against a taught Birmingham Barons squad. The Smokies open a four-game series against the Carolina Mudcats tonight at Smokies Stadium. Of course, many will opt to stay indoors this weekend and watch the UT DiamondVols historic run in Omaha as part of the College World Series. And some guys have other fantastic adventures planned.

While I will certainly be keeping tabs on all of that, my main sports focus this week is on golf's U.S. Open (which is not treating a few Commodores nicely). The run-up to this tournament has been a bit difficult to handle, as Pinehurst No. 2 was the site of the last major that one of my heroes, Payne Stewart, won only four months before his death in a plane crash. I admit that I have shed many tears over the various flashbacks and introductions related to ESPN and NBC's coverage of the event. Bob Costas, on his new HBO show "CostasNOW," profiled Payne's son, Aaron, and how Lee Janzen, one of Payne's rivals on tour and a fellow Orlando resident, had taken to playing golf with Aaron, even entering father-and-son tournaments together. It was very touching.

Payne, along with Cal Ripken, Jr., Bill Elliott, and Jim Courier, were my heroes growing up. They all possessed certain qualities that made them giants in their respective sports, but it was the way that they gave to others, the way that the loved the life that God had given them, and the way that they gave all of themselves in everything they did - whether it was as an athlete, a father, a patriot, or even as a role model to a young fan that they didn't have to stop and talk to buy did anyway. When I lived in Orlando as a boy, I knew of Payne Stewart before he really hit the big time. Success never changed with Payne - the money, the fame, the celebrity didn't turn him. The only changes I ever saw in Payne were 1) when his wonderful wife Tracey and their beautiful children came into his life and 2) when Payne accepted Jesus Christ into his life. The right things changed Payne, and that, I suppose, is why his loss at such an early age grieves me so.

Judging by my reactions to the various video tributes to Payne and articles such as this, I have no doubt that I would have an incredibly difficult time making it through "Payne Stewart," a biography of Payne written by his wife Tracey. When reading about the way that Payne touched the lives of everyone he came in contact with, you begin to recognize the true greatness of this man. You also see why he was a great role model. In an age when many sports heroes are idolized for all of the wrong reasons (Kobe Bryant, Randy Moss, and Barry Bonds come to mind), one must be careful when allowing a young man to choose sports stars as role models. I don't believe that my father was too worried when I choose Payne, even if I insisted on wearing plus-fours and a tam-o'-shanter on the golf course.

I'll never forget the 1999 U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2. The drama of Payne trying to capture a title that had so cruelly eluded him only a few years earlier and the nervousness that surrounded Phil Mickelson, whose wife was about to go into labor at any moment, was simply overwhelming. Add to that the incredibly difficult course conditions of Pinehurst No. 2 (will anyone ever forget poor John Daly trying to get his ball to stay on the par-4 8th hole, eventually carding an 11?), and the stage was set for a title for the ages - regardless of the tragedy that was to follow. And through it all, after that historic putt fell on the final hole that made Payne Stewart the U.S. Open champion, his remarks to a devastated friend in Phil Mickelson said it all. Payne told him that none of it mattered, that Phil was going to be a father in a matter of hours, that he was going to be a great father, and that was more important than any trophy would ever be. Jack Nicklaus, my second favorite golfer of all-time, said the following after Payne's death:

"The loss of Payne Stewart was a tremendous one for the golfing world and for me personally. Payne was a devoted family man and a man of strong faith. He was a great champion who truly respected the game, and he will be sorely missed by anyone who ever knew him or had the pleasure of watching him play."

I couldn't agree more. I still remember watching the memorial for Payne at the Tour Championship only days after Payne's death. I watched the event on television from my condo in Chicago (why I wasn't attending classes that day I cannot recall). I remember the tears, but I also remember the perfection of the moment. A thick fog enshrouded the golf course that day, and a lone bagpiper played "Amazing Grace" as he walked down the fairway into the mist. It was perfect, but it made me ache. I still have a hard time with the premature loss of Payne Stewart, as this is the first time I have ever written about it. Even though some things are difficult, they still need to be expressed. My heroes taught me that.

I probably will post little on Father's Day. If you need to read something on Sunday that is a tribute to those who taught you lessons about how to navigate through life's rapids, reread this passage. I can't do much better than this.

Aside from the touching tribute to Payne, which I particularly enjoyed, and the reference to Jim Courier, which I also enjoyed, I would note that you misstated the name of the Knoxville Open at the beginning of your blog. As correctly listed by the Golf Channel to my great joy, it should be listed as "The Knoxville Open presented by Food City". Just thought I would point that out.
Ben -

My mistake. I will immediately buy 2 packs of Food Club Mac & Chees and a 6-pack of Dr. Wow to make up for my mistake. :)


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