Clinton's tribute after golfer dies in jet smash

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The Independent Online

President Bill Clinton led the tributes today to golf champion Payne Stewart who was killed when his Learjet crashed in a remote area of the United States.

President Bill Clinton led the tributes today to golf champion Payne Stewart who was killed when his Learjet crashed in a remote area of the United States.

The Dallas-bound jet flew 1,500 miles uncontrolled over the US for several hours before crashing in South Dakota yesterday.

Stewart, 42, the US Open champion and member of the US Ryder Cup team which defeated Europe last month, had chartered the twin-engine Lear 35 plane which was believed to have experienced a pressurisation failure.

As the inquiry into the incident, in which at least four others on board also perished, was launched, tributes poured in for the flamboyant golf champion and father of two.

President Clinton said: "I am profoundly sorry for the loss of Payne Stewart, who has had such a remarkable career and impact on his sport and a remarkable resurgence in the last couple of years."

Bernard Gallacher, the former European Ryder Cup captain, said Stewart would be "sadly missed".

He told Sky News: "He was very upset when things happened to Colin Montgomerie (during the Ryder Cup).

"I know he was upset that the crowd participated in the match, upset our team and he certainly didn't want it to happen.

"I know he evicted himself personally two or three people, pointed them out to security and police officers and had them thrown out when they were aiming personal abuse at Colin Montgomerie.

"Things in the Ryder Cup will get better - it is just sad that Payne Stewart will not be at The Belfry in two years' time. He will be sadly missed."

Ken Schofield, executive director of the European Tour, said last night it was a "very, very sad day for the entire world of golf".

He said: "Payne was a wonderful person, there was no question of that - he was a magnificent golfer with a totally international focus."

He added: "The family that is the European Golf Tour, arriving for the Volvo Masters in Jerez ... will be very sombre. Golf is one sad family."

BBC commentator Peter Alliss, writing in the Daily Mail, said: "I have known Payne ever since he first became a figure in golf 15 or so years ago.

"It was characteristic of the man that he was the one who socialised with the British and the Europeans in the bar after the Ryder Cup, to try to make amends.

"As a golfer he was a beautiful player. He had a style all of his own, a wide, willowy swing that was laid-back and looked effortless.

"He was also a good man, kind and balanced - an individual like no one else."

Stewart, who was a regular visitor to Europe and was last here only three weeks ago, representing the United States in the Alfred Dunhill Cup at St Andrews, had recently been made honorary captain of Waterville Golf Club in Ireland for next year.

The club's managing director Jay Connolly said: "Payne has many supporters in Ireland and on each visit to Waterville he has won the hearts of our small village."

Also known to be on board the 23-year-old executive jet were Stewart's agents Robert Fraley and Van Arden, and pilots Michael Kling, 43, and Stephanie Bellegarrigue, 27.

It is reported that a sixth person boarded the plane just before it took off Monday from Orlando, Florida.

Stewart had been expected in Houston today for practice rounds in advance of the Tour Championship, the USPGA Tour's final tournament of the year for the top 30 players on its money list.

"It is difficult to express our sense of shock and sadness over the death of Payne Stewart," USPGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said.

"This is a tremendous loss for the entire golfing community and all of sports. He will always be remembered as a very special competitor and one who contributed enormously to the positive image of professional golf."

The aircraft had taken off from Orlando, Florida, and contact was lost with those on board at Gainesville.

US Air Force F-16 and F-15 fighters followed the jet and reported seeing no activity on board.

The pilots managed to draw close and noticed no structural damage but were unable to see into the jet because its windows were frosted over, indicating the temperature inside was well below freezing.

British aviation expert David Learmount, of Flight International, said depressurisation at that altitude would have resulted in the crew and passengers becoming unconscious within seconds.

He told Sky News: "The F-16 fighter pilots...looked at the windows and said that they appear to be frosted over which indicates a very, very low temperature inside the aircraft and that might mean depressurisation at a very high altitude.

"We understand the Learjet was at 43,000ft which is well above what most airliners fly at.

"If the aircraft did depressurise at that height literally you wouldn't have time to get an oxygen mask to your face before you passed out from lack of oxygen."

The South Dakota Highway Patrol confirmed that the plane crashed about two miles west of Mina, in the north-central part of the state.

The Federal Aviation Administration is leading the investigation into the cause of the crash.

Stewart has been one of the most recognisable players in golf because of his trademark plus fours and Tam o' Shanter hat.

He has won 18 tournaments around the world, including three major championships.

In June, he won his second US Open over Phil Mickelson with a 15ft putt, the longest putt to ever decide that championship on the final hole.

Born in Missouri but living in Orlando, Stewart, who leaves a wife Tracey and two children - daughter Chelsea, 14, and son Aaron, 10, was a deeply religious man.

Bernhard Langer, like Stewart a devout Christian, said: "We all know where he is going.

"We've been friends for a long time and he's been a wonderful colleague - very friendly, very polite, very out-going.

"Every time you saw him he seemed happy and joyful and he was a man of many talents."