It has been 15 years since Payne Stewart's dramatic win in the 1999 U.S. Open at fabled Pinehurst No. 2, followed by his tragic death that fall in a plane crash at the age of 42.
Yet there is not a day that goes by that his former caddie, Mike Hicks, doesn't think about that week in the Sandhills of North Carolina. Together, Hicks and Stewart won nine events worldwide, including the 1989 PGA Championship and the 1991 and 1999 U.S. Opens, in their 11-year partnership.
The 52-year-old Hicks reminisces on that epic week at Pinehurst and the nature and character of Stewart, who has become nearly synonymous with the Donald Ross masterpiece that will host its third U.S Open beginning June 12.
Payne was playing great coming into Pinehurst. He had won at Pebble and lost in a playoff in Hilton Head. And he had a chance to win the Players until he made a 10 on the 17th hole at TPC Sawgrass in the final round.
In Memphis the week before the Open, we were both kind of thinking ahead, so we missed the cut, which was probably one of the biggest reasons why he won. It gave us a chance to get to Pinehurst early to learn the greens.
In the years that I worked for Payne, he never carried a yardage book. That was my responsibility. The '99 U.S. Open was the only week I ever saw him with one. He marked every spot around those greens where you did not want to hit the ball.
In 72 holes, he hit it into one of those gray areas once. And that was on the second hole on Sunday, and he made a six-footer for bogey.
Getting Payne's bag
Payne had a guy, Rob Kay, who was a good friend of mine. Payne fired him in 1987 and hired a guy named Tim Davies from Jacksonville. We were in Japan and I was working part-time for Curtis Strange. Davies, who had never caddied, shows up for the first day on the job dressed in knickers like Payne.
So I went up to Payne and I said if it doesn't work out with this guy, I would like to go to work for you. That was in December. The following March I started working for him, and the rest is history.
Payne had gotten away from focusing on his intermediary target right in front of the ball. So he worked on that with his sports psychologist, Dr. Dick Coop, before the start of the '99 Open and I think it was one of the reasons why he played so well that week. He recaptured his focus.
After his tee shot at the 12th hole famously settled into a divot during the final round of the '98 U.S. Open at the Olympic Club, Payne practiced on the range hitting out of sand-filled divots. At Pinehurst, we had three divot balls during the tournament, including two on the fifth hole. And we made par every time.
Olympic proved to Payne that he could still compete at the highest level. He left San Francisco with a ton of confidence. He lost, but he left there feeling good about himself and his game.
But in '98, he was nowhere near in control of his game like he was in '99. He was doing it with mirrors at Olympic and it caught up with him on Sunday.
Payne had a bad back. He had three degenerative disks. He worked on his game, but he monitored things because of his back condition.
A good feeling
You never know if you're going to win, but I went into that week at Pinehurst with a good feeling that we could get into the mix. Before leaving my house on Sunday in Mebane, N.C., which is about 70 miles from Pinehurst, I told my wife if we make four birdies in the final round we are going to win the tournament, and Payne made four birdies.
Payne had a U.S. Open game. Lee Janzen beat us twice in '93 and '98. We won twice. And 11 times he slept on the lead after 18, 36 or 54 holes in the U.S. Open.
Payne never blamed me for anything. In his opinion, he's got the ultimate decision and whether he takes my advice or not, he's making that final choice. He always said, "It's not your fault, I'm the one hitting the shot."
Most days at the golf course he would come striding in with his knickers and I would say, "Looking good, Billy Ray," and he would say, "Feeling good, Louis."
Payne was friendly with a lot of guys, but there were guys that didn't like him. You either liked Payne or you didn't. There was no in between with him. He was a needler and brash and a jokester, who would sometimes take things too far.
Unless you had thick skin, you didn't really like Payne. But the beauty of him is that he welcomed the needling back. Even the guys that didn't like him had to respect his game.
I don't care if you are best buddies, the Sunday of the U.S. Open and you're playing with them in the final group, there is probably not going to be 10 words spoken between players and caddies all day.
You're doing your thing and they are doing their thing. I didn't say anything to Jim "Bones" Mackay. And he didn't say anything to me. Payne and Phil Mickelson were courteous and complimentary over good shots, but there was no small talk.
The winning 15-foot putt at the 72nd hole
I didn't read a putt all week. Payne knew what was happening. He had prepared. He was focused and at peace. It was just his time.
We made very little money in 1994. Payne didn't even want to play because he was playing so bad. I went to him and said if you want me to caddie for you I have to be put on salary. I wanted to get paid every month. And so I actually signed a contract with Payne. That was probably one of the first player-caddie contracts ever.
A lot of his downfall came when he changed his clubs and ball in 1993. His spin rate went way up when he changed the ball. In order to bring his flight down, he started to change his swing to compensate for the spin on the ball. That's when he got out of sorts and it costs him probably four years of his career.
But that equipment deal with Top Flite built him a big house in Orlando. In '99, he was playing what he wanted to play.
Payne had a loop in swing. If you watched him on film, you're not going to teach anybody to swing that way. His rhythm and timing were his biggest assets. He was an athlete. That's one reason he was good around the greens, because he had great touch and hands.
After Pinehurst, we played just two more events that summer: the Open Championship and the PGA. He enjoyed the win. The Stewarts took an RV trip out to the Northwest. After the PGA, he played a few weeks to get the rust off to get ready for the Ryder Cup.
Payne backed into the win at the '89 PGA at Kemper Lakes. Mike Reid had it won and messed up coming in. At Hazeltine in '91, he went out and won it.
No question the U.S. Open at Pinehurst was the biggest win of his career. Look at who was on the leaderboard? David Duval is No. 1 in the world. Tiger, Vijay and Phil are also right there. And Payne beat them all at 42 years old.
Payne had such a confidence in himself that week. It was a different look. He had a Raymond Floyd look in his eye. I did nothing as a caddie that week but carry the bag, give him the yardage, the wind direction and tell him what I always did, which is, "Get your spot. Nice and slow."
Payne was at a level of concentration and focus that I had never seen. In this game, if you believe enough in yourself, you can beat anybody.
On the golf course, it was hard to tell that he was chewing tobacco. He kept it in the front pouch of the golf bag. The can would never come out of the bag. He would get his little pinch and close the bag. Then the tobacco might not be in his mouth more than 100 yards before he spit it out.
On my refrigerator there is a big picture of Payne modeling his clothing line. So when I'm home I look at him every day. He's all over my house. I have pictures of him holding my three children as babies.
We didn't leave Pinehurst until about 10:30 on Sunday night. That next day I had a skins game at my home club in Mebane to raise money for the North Carolina Children's Hospital.
So Payne, Pat O'Brien (our designated driver) and I jumped into my van to drive to my house in Melbane. On the way there we picked up a 12-pack of beer from a convenience store and Payne put about half of those down before we got home. We had a State patrolman escort us all the way to my house. When we got to the house, we drank moonshine out of the U.S. Open trophy until about 4 a.m. ET.
At 9:45 a.m. ET, Payne was dressed in full knicker garb and looking like he had slept for 12 hours.
It was a caddie's ultimate. I have just won the U.S. Open in my home state and I have the champion playing at my club the next day with three other top players: Fred Couples, Paul Azinger and Hal Sutton. Does it get any more exciting than that tournament? It's mind-boggling.
Payne had a lot left in his game. He took care of himself. He worked out. And he had finally become consistent with the putter. In fact, he was becoming a great putter.
He never got to experience the equipment advances. He died right as the ball was evolving. Had he lived, he could have won more majors.