PINEHURST, N.C. -- While he was playing a practice round with Payne Stewart at Pinehurst No. 2 before the 1999 U.S. Open, former PGA champion Paul Azinger felt unprepared, almost uncomfortable, watching his good friend go through his pre-tournament sessions.

Stewart had already won two major championships -- the 1989 PGA Championship at Kemper Lakes in Illinois and the 1991 U.S. Open at Hazeltine in Minnesota -- but he had lost the U.S. Open a year earlier at the Olympic Club in San Francisco when he took a four-shot lead into the final round, only to become undone by a divot, a slow-play warning and a late rally by Lee Janzen. That disappointment burned inside him, and Azinger could see the intensity in his eyes.

"He looked like he was just in a different place mentally," Azinger said. "I thought I was being out-prepared by him that way. I remember that feeling. It was an uncomfortable, uneasy feeling for me. He just went to another place mentally. He had kind of an entourage that week, and it just seemed like something special was going to happen. I don't know how else to describe it."

Something special did happen.

In one of the most dramatic finishes in U.S. Open history, a moment that has grown even more iconic with the tragic events that followed four months later, Stewart made an 18-foot par putt on the final hole to beat Phil Mickelson and win the U.S. Open -- a moment that has been immortalized with a statue not far behind the 18th green at Pinehurst No. 2.

With his right leg thrust behind him and his right arm punching forward, Stewart's euphoria was uncontained. He bear-hugged his caddie, Mike Hicks, who leaped into his arms like a child happy to see his dad. Then he went over to Mickelson, whose wife, Amy, was due to deliver their first child, and wrapped both hands around his face.

"You will make a wonderful father," Stewart said to Mickelson.

On an unusually cool day in the sand hills of North Carolina, Stewart did more than show the resolve of a warrior and gain the respect befitting a three-time major champion. In front of his peers and people who only knew him for his knickers and tam o'shanter-style cap, he completed a personal metamorphosis that saw his sometimes churlish character soften like Pinehurst's rain-dampened greens.

"You know, you can't make predictions," Azinger said recently. "Believe it or not, Payne had already won two majors leading into that event, and I still think that he wasn't really respected. He had the Avis reputation and nickname [for always finishing second]. When he made that putt on 18, I was watching it from my room and thinking there's no way he's going to reach, and when that thing reached and went in, I just couldn't believe it.

"And immediately, immediately, he earned the respect that one major should have gotten him, certainly two. But it actually took three. And he became revered and he became almost iconic. Now all of a sudden the whole knickers look wasn't a gimmick and Payne Stewart cemented his place in history."

Four months later, at age 42, Stewart was gone. On Oct. 25, 1999, he died in a bizarre private-plane accident in which he, his agent Robert Fraley, both pilots and two other passengers lost consciousness due to a loss of cabin pressurization.

The Learjet 35 aircraft in which they were traveling was originally on a flight from Orlando to Dallas, where Stewart was to discuss building a new golf course for his alma mater, Southern Methodist. But the plane strayed off course over northern Florida and continued flying to the northwest until the fuel apparently ran out. A U.S. Air Force F-16 was dispatched to spot the aircraft and reported the cockpit windows were obscured by condensation or frost.

The plane carrying the incapacitated passengers continued to fly for four hours, covering 1,500 miles, before it spiraled to the ground and crashed in Aberdeen, S.D.

"He was as happy as I had ever seen him," Hicks said in a recent interview on ESPN. "And he's gone. Just like that."

There was another U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2 in the years since Stewart's dramatic victory. In 2005, Michael Campbell won his first and only major championship when he bested Tiger Woods by two shots, a tournament remembered more for the final-round collapse of 54-hole leader Retief Goosen, who shot 81 in his bid to become the first repeat champion since Curtis Strange in 1989.

And the tournament returns there this week, with Mickelson hoping to end his record number of second-place finishes (6) -- the first of which came at the very same site 15 years ago.

But there will never be another U.S. Open at Pinehurst like the one in 1999, no matter how many more they play.

"The last time I saw Payne was in the tunnel underneath the clubhouse about 10:30 that Sunday night," said former two-time U.S. Open champ Andy North, who played practice rounds with Stewart at U.S. Open venues. "He's not only missed by an awful lot of people, he was really a very important guy in our game at that time."

A different man

When he lived in Orlando, Stewart would go to Bay Hill twice a month and stop in to see Arnold Palmer, often talking about golf but also about life.

Palmer referred to Stewart as "different," noting that he was "well-liked by the guys," but adding, "Not always."

Then Palmer said, "That's where the problem was."

Stewart won 17 times in his PGA Tour career, including those three major championships, and had a swing sweeter than southern tea. His colorful, distinctive clothing set him apart from the other players and endeared him to the fans.

But his disposition wasn't always as smooth as his swing. He could be aloof to many he came across, condescending to some, flippant to others. Journalist John Garrity wrote in Sports Illustrated that Stewart was "a quieter version of Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas morning."

Palmer recalled a time Stewart came to a function at Bay Hill, wearing a hat in the clubhouse.

"We have a club rule you don't wear a hat inside," Palmer said. "He was asked to take the hat off and he said no, he won't take it off. We said, well, you either will or you will leave. And he got up and left. I was upset about that."

Palmer said Stewart eventually came back to the club one day and all was forgiven. He also said he saw a change in Stewart after what happened at Pinehurst. To this day, Palmer, a former pilot who owns his own plane, still shakes his head over the unfortunate manner in which Stewart died, calling the accident "inexcusable" because the plane wasn't properly checked before takeoff.

"Some people were killed who shouldn't have been killed," Palmer said.

Death is legacy's buffer. It has a way of glossing over the bad and punctuating the good. And so it might have been with Stewart. But others noticed a shift long before that, starting to see a change in him before what happened at Pinehurst.

"The few years prior to that, he really turned his life around and became a Christian," said former British Open champ and good friend Mark Calcavecchia, his two-ball partner in the 1991 Ryder Cup matches who often shared a rental home with Stewart and his family at major championships. "He was a little bit of a wild man in his early age, but he was such a prankster. He had everything 100 percent perfect in his life -- winning the Open, his wife, Traci, is an amazing woman, his kids are great. It's just a tragic accident, for sure."

The outward change in Stewart was evident a year earlier at the Olympic Club when he blew the four-shot lead he carried into the final round. Stewart's demise began on the 12th hole when, holding a one-shot lead on the player who beat him six years earlier in the U.S. Open at Baltusrol, his perfect drive landed in a sandy divot in the fairway, leading to a bogey. For the first time since early in the first round, Stewart was no longer the outright leader.

Worse, Stewart agonized so much over the shot that landed in the divot -- he believed players should be given a free drop, as though it were ground under repair -- that his group was given a slow-time warning by the USGA. One more bad time and they would be issued a two-shot penalty.

Stewart bogeyed two of the final three holes to lose to Janzen. Afterward, there was none of the usual Stewart behavior, no sniping, no bitterness. Hicks, his caddie, said in an interview with ESPN, "When I first started caddying for Payne in 1988 he could be a real bitter person if something like that happened. But he was genuinely happy for Lee Janzen."

This was a new Payne Stewart, and many believe that's why he came to Pinehurst a year later so determined, so focused. Or, as Azinger said, in a different place mentally.

One to remember

After what happened at Olympic, Stewart was so determined to master the art of hitting shots from a sand-filled divot that he stood on Pinehurst's range and did just that -- hit shot after shot from sand-filled divots.

But that wasn't all.

He also carried a yardage book, something he never did, and marked every spot where he didn't want to hit the ball around the crowned greens that look like upside-down saucer cups.

What's more, he came to Pinehurst on something of a roll, having won earlier in the season at Pebble Beach and losing in a playoff at Hilton Head. Curiously, he missed the cut at Memphis the week before the Open, primarily because he was thinking ahead to Pinehurst.

But that may have helped Stewart because he got to Pinehurst earlier than planned and had a chance to learn the devilish greens.

It paid off on Sunday when he one-putted each of the final three holes -- saving par from 20 feet on No. 16, making a 5-foot birdie at the par-3 17th and getting up and down from 50 yards in the fairway at the final hole to set up the winning 18-foot par putt.

"Nobody has ever made three putts in the last three holes to win a U.S. Open in history," said NBC analyst Johnny Miller, who won the 1973 U.S. Open at Oakmont with his famous final-round 63. "Nobody has ever made those three clutch putts, especially the putt at 18 that is straight uphill, which is the hardest putt in golf, to be honest with you. You get no help from a straight uphill putt. You just have to hit it absolutely perfectly to make it and you just can't make it any other way."

And Stewart did. The drama of the moment, the reaction from the man who was not always liked by his peers, the tragic suddenness with which his life was taken shortly thereafter, have conspired to make what happened 15 years ago at Pinehurst one of the greatest spectacles in major-championship history.

"The way he left the game was so tragic," Azinger said. "[David] Feherty asked me, when I did the show with him, he asked me how do I want to be remembered? I've given that some thought, but my answer to him was that I didn't really care how I was remembered because I couldn't control that. I just wanted to live my life so one day I'd be missed.

"Payne Stewart did that, I guess, especially towards the end. He wasn't the most popular player amongst the players at times. He could cross the line when he was joking with you. But I think in the end, everybody really respected Payne, and he's certainly missed by multiple millions that love the sport and the people that knew him personally."

Gerry Dulac:; twitter: @gerrydulac

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