Aaron Stewart connects with golf through LPGA's season-opening event

Aaron Stewart and his wife, Nai, at Hazeltine National Golf Club, the site of Payne Stewart's 1991 U.S. Open championship. Courtesy of Aaron Stewart

When Aaron Stewart was 10 years old, he and his 13-year-old sister, Chelsea, were called to the principal's office one October day in 1999.

It wasn't the usual scenario of facing the principal for doing something wrong. Rather, their lives were about to be forever altered, and they were being sent home to be with their mom, Tracey.

Oct. 25, 1999, started normally for the family, with reigning U.S. Open champion Payne Stewart making pancakes for breakfast. The day ended tragically, however, with the 42-year-old golf superstar dying in a plane crash that received minute-to-minute TV coverage as the event unfolded.

Despite the media coverage of the tragic death and the loss of his father at such a young age, Aaron Stewart credits his mom, a native of Australia, for providing Chelsea and him with a stable childhood.

Now, 20 years after his father's death, Aaron Stewart is taking his own place in the golf world as the executive director of the Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions, the LPGA's season opener in Orlando, Florida.

This is Stewart's first year heading the second-year event, which takes place Thursday through Sunday at the Four Seasons Golf and Sports Club Orlando. In addition to the $1.2 million, 72-hole LPGA tournament, there is a $500,000 celebrity golf event with a generous charity component.

"Oh my gosh, we're running a mile a minute over here, but it's been a lot of fun," Stewart said a week before the tournament as he talked to ESPN by phone. "There's a wide variety of things going on right now.

"I don't know if I'm calm, but I wouldn't say I'm nervous. It's kind of like that excited energy. I feel really confident in the plan we've put together. We've spent the entire year preparing for this week."

Aware that there's a "very, very fine line" between being a talented golfer and being a PGA star, the younger Stewart determined midway through college that his following in his father's footsteps would conclude with his playing college golf at Southern Methodist University.

Stewart picked up golf after his father died, so his experience with the sport came in a unique fashion.

Many from the international golf community live in the Orlando area and adhere to the notion that it takes a village to raise children, so they provided an integral support system for the Stewart family. Family friends such as golf stars Mark O'Meara, Lee Janzen, Ian Baker-Finch and Paul Azinger frequently stepped up as surrogate dads, including to play father-son tournaments with Aaron.

"One year, my first year [playing a father-son tournament], I played with Lee Janzen, and the next year with Paul Azinger, and that was really cool," Stewart said. "Paul had two daughters, and Lee has a son, Connor, who was younger and didn't really play golf at the time. That was really special, and I was really blown away that the tournament would allow that and that Lee and Paul both offered to spend their time, take me under their wing and enter the tournament with me."

Once Stewart decided that professional golf wasn't his calling, he faced the question most college graduates must consider: What's next?

"When I came out of school, my mom said, 'What are you going to do?' so I figured I better figure out something since it doesn't look like I'm going to be freeloading for very long," Stewart said with a laugh.

He initially engaged in a conversation with DJ Snell, the family agent for Payne Stewart Enterprises, to see if the Harvard law alumnus thought he should pursue law school. At the same time, family friend Mike Flaskey, the CEO of Diamond Resorts, an upscale vacation time-share company, suggested an alternative. Flaskey was starting a Diamond Resorts marketing mentorship program and told Stewart, "I think you'd be perfect for it."

Stewart's initial reaction was tempered: "Hey, Mike, you and I are great buddies. I know what your title is, but ultimately, I don't really know that much about what you do for work in your company."

Flaskey briefly explained the business -- and prevailed in luring Stewart to sign up for the yearlong program. Finally, after a number of years of advancing through the company's ranks to become vice president of sports marketing for Diamond Resorts, Stewart came full circle to his golf roots.

Flaskey put him at the helm of the LPGA Tournament of Champions.

"There's too many people in and around the industry that quite frankly are fans, and that can have negative ramifications," Flaskey said. "From Aaron's perspective, he's seen it all, been around it all. He grew up in it. So he doesn't come at this with a fan's perspective. He comes at this with the perspective of doing his job and doing it very well.

"Obviously, the Stewart name brings a lot of visibility and credibility to the role he sits in and to the golf tournament."

Although some might bristle at the idea of a family profile being considered an asset for a job, Stewart is comfortable embracing that reality.

"I definitely see what Mike is saying," Stewart said. "It doesn't validate it at all, but it does bring a sense of, 'OK, I know who that person is. I've heard of his father before, and I know he was involved in golf.' But that does not change the expectation. I still have to go out and execute a world-class event. I can't rely on, 'Oh, OK, I messed that up, but it's OK because my last name is Stewart.'"

Stewart's link to his father was highlighted in October, on the 20th anniversary of Payne's death. He and his sister took part in a number of remembrance events to mark the occasion, and they did a PGA Tour radio interview. His sister also wrote a moving tribute letter to their father that appeared on the PGA Tour website, detailing what Payne has missed with the family and how much he is still loved.

"I was blown away with that letter," Aaron Stewart said. "She didn't tell me about it before it came out. I was sitting in my office, and one of my friends sent me the letter, and I had to close the door because I just started bawling."

Stewart is confident that his dad would be proud of the man he has become, a belief his mom has substantiated throughout his life. Now, ahead of the biggest moment of his career as a golf tournament director, what message would Stewart like to send his dad?

"Oh, man, that's one of the hardest questions," Stewart said. "It's one of those things that ... how long do I have? Are we going to spend a day together, and I can catch him up on everything? I'd get into everything: talk about my wife, talk about the new additions to the family -- my nephew, William, and Chelsea's husband, Patrick -- talk about Mom and the amazing job that she did over the years.

"Or would it be just one sentence? Because in that case it's just, 'Love you, miss you, wish you were here.'"