Golf: The prodigy and the patriot

Behind the Payne barrier hides the American hero; Andy Farrell suggests the crude loudmouth image hides the real man
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The Independent Online
WHAT PAYNE STEWART says he brings to the Ryder Cup - or brings back to it, as the US Open champion has not played since America's last victory six years ago - is "enthusiasm". Others might suggest it is more like undiluted arrogance but, as usual, the truth is somewhere in between. "I am an outspoken person," he said. "I have a lot of energy."

Those two factors can be a dangerous combination where other people's sensibilities are concerned. Typical of Stewart was his half-quoted analysis of the relative strengths of the American and European Ryder Cup teams. "On paper, they shouldn't be caddieing for us," he said, managing in one short sentence to provoke the resentment of an entire continent.

But where Stewart is even-handed is that he is also capable of pissing off his own compatriots. What he went on to say was this: "But that is not what the Ryder Cup is about. It is about bringing your game to the event, and they bring it."

The implication, of course, was that the Americans did not perform at Oak Hill four years ago or last time at Valderrama and Stewart was fed up sitting at home watching it. At first he brooded on the fact that Tom Kite did not pick him as a wild card two years ago - Stewart was one of the few American players to bother to turn up for a practice round in Spain earlier that season - but then he decided to do something about it.

"My goal this year was to make the Ryder Cup team," Stewart, 42, said. His win at Pebble Beach in February was only his second since claiming his first US Open in 1991. His publicly stated aim to play at Brookline, and the unstated suggestion that he was the man America needed to win back the cup, inevitably miffed other players.

Stewart has always been an acquired taste, but the image can be deceiving. Only in competition does he wear his famous plus-twos. In practice rounds, wearing trousers, he often goes unrecognised. While being shown around Stewart's former mansion in Orlando, Michael Jackson, the pop star, could not place the name of the vendor until told he was the "guy in the knickers".

That Stewart once lived in a huge, ostentatious house that Jackson was interested in buying says a lot about the person he was. That he sold it says more about the person he is now. The devoted father and family man has mellowed with age and found religion. "This walk I am having in Christianity is being led by my children," Stewart explained. "They go to a very good Christian school and with that I've met a lot of really nice people at a Baptist church in Orlando. I've been going to Sunday school and meeting people from all walks of life. We all have something in common: Jesus Christ."

Stewart was recently surprised, but delighted, when his daughter Chelsea, 13, announced she wanted to go to Harvard Law School. More vexing was when his son, Aaron, eight, said he wanted to concentrate on surfing and skateboarding rather than traditional sports.

"I remember my father being a very vocal person at my sporting events," Stewart said. "He once got a technical foul at a basketball game and I thought then: `I'm never going to scream at my kids' games'. And what happens? I go to my son's baseball match and the umpires haven't got a grip on the game. I shouted: `Come on, ump, get with the game,' and he turned around and said: `Any more of you and I'll throw you out of here'."

It's that enthusiasm again and, at his fifth Ryder Cup, Stewart will be the one singing the "Star Spangled Banner" at the opening and closing ceremonies. "I am a patriotic person and, for me, the Ryder Cup is one of the finest golf events I've ever played in. I couldn't tell you my individual record [he has won exactly half his 16 matches] because I don't look at it that way.

"It's a team competition, not an individual one. I hope I can help prepare some people on the team who, perhaps, aren't used to hearing people cheer when they miss a putt. I feel like I'm a rah-rah person. When I'm teamed with a partner, boy, I'm going to be in his ear. I'm going to be very supportive. I hope Ben [Crenshaw, the US captain] understands the importance of motivation. He must make the team pull together. I think a lot of our players are complacent about the event being for the betterment of the game of golf. We're past that stuff. Trust me, the Europeans don't have that mentality. They come over and want to whip us.

"Having said that, the `War on the Shore' thing at Kiawah in '91 was too strong. It's a pride-check thing, sure. But in the end it's still a game of golf. If at the end of the day you can't shake hands with your opponents and still be friends, then you've missed the point.

"I've made a lot of friends over in Europe and a lot of it has been through the Ryder Cup. At The Belfry in '93 when we won, I went into the European team room and sat down. Chris de Burgh was in there playing the piano with Christy O'Connor Jnr, and they brought out the harmonicas. That's what it is all about. After we get done, we can shake hands and say: `It was great'.

"But, it has to be said, it's much easier to say that if you are on the winning team." Stewart has also experienced defeat in the event, in his debut match at Muirfield Village in 1987 when Jack Nicklaus's team became the first to lose on home soil.

"It was not nice losing at Jack's place. He let us know about it when we finished. He said: `You guys don't know how to win. How many matches were we leading in going to 18 and didn't win? Look at you, Payne Stewart. You make all this money on tour but how many tournaments have you won? Why don't you win more? You guys need to learn how to win or you're going to continue getting beaten in this thing'.

"There wasn't any sugar-coating on it. I'll tell you that speech was good for me." And Stewart back in the Ryder Cup could be good for the Americans.