Tuesday, January 11, 2011




Stewart Throws Hope for a Loop

     PALM DESERT — You all remember Payne Stewart? Used to wear those garish plus-four costumes with the logos of the NFL teams. Jaunty kind of a guy. Figured golf was an easy game. You could tell by his attitude, the offhand way he treated success.
   He won the U.S. Open, then bought champagne for the press room, the first time that had been done since the late Tony Lema. He won the PGA. He had the game by the ears. Treated it with a little disdain. I mean, what's so hard about this? Hit the ball, go find it, hit it again — and then make the short putt.
   Piece of cake. Millions of dollars out there for the taking. Just win, baby. No problem. How long has this been going on?
   Then, that Payne Stewart went off-screen. He was as distant a memory as Hogan and Bobby Jones. People talked of him in the hushed terms of the dearly departed. He disappeared in a welter of bad putts, high scores and missed cuts.
   In other words, he found out how tough this game was. The rest of us knew a long time ago. Hogan could have told him. The game is ruthless, heartless. It demands constant attention, like an imperious mistress.
   Payne didn't exactly lash out, but he began to frown where he used to smile. It was like having a pet turn on you. Like the rest of us on the golf course, he began to fear the worst. Paul Azinger chipped in out of a sand trap to snatch one tournament from him. Lee Janzen played over his head to snatch a U.S. Open from him.
   Those things happen in golf. You hit a wall. It happens. Ask anybody who every putted for a living. Ask Ken Venturi, Gene Littler. Even Arnold could tell you. Be in three playoffs for a U.S. Open and lose all of 'em. How fair is that?
   The good ones pick themselves up and come back better than ever. The others go back to cleaning clubs or selling cars.
   Payne Stewart picked a typically Payne Stewart remedy for this perilous state of affairs.
   He put a loop back in his swing.
   You heard me. I know, I know! People spend thousands of dollars and hundreds of man-hours trying to take the loop out of their backswings. It's the second thing you're taught, right after "Keep your left arm straight." "Get rid of that loop, dummy!"
   But Payne kind of marches to a different drummer. In fact, it's not even a drum. More like a glockenspiel.
   So, Payne set about to putting a loop back in his game. Only Payne Stewart. Like entering an auto race with a flat tire, Payne had this little three-handicap detour in his swing. And he loves it. It's like getting an old sweetheart back. He's content.
   He's also good again. Payne came bouncing into the press room at the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic on Saturday after throwing a little 63 at the Indian Ridge course and vaulting into the lead in the tournament at 18 under par.
   Payne was as loopy as his take-away. "I think the best of Payne Stewart is yet to come!" he told startled reporters.
   Of course, 63s have that effect on golfers. But Payne seems to have recovered his self-esteem — along with his loop.
   "My wife told me I was 47th on the SONY list (of world's top players). But I'm better than that! Hey! I'm one of the world's best players! I just have to prove it to myself."
   What had happened, in the view of Stewart, is he didn't stay loopy. He got loopless. "I decided to get better."
   He went to his golf guru, Dave Pelz, who took one look at his swing and said "You've got a loop!"
   So he had. Now, for most people having a loop in the backswing is like having a rattlesnake in your pocket. So Payne Stewart got rid of it.
   His swing got gorgeous. He looked good missing the cut.
   But the loop was Payne Stewart. After all, it's well to remember Stan Musial violated about eight of the basic canons of the best stance to hit the baseball all his career. So, form is overrated.
   Loopless, Payne Stewart was also winless. He dropped down the ladder. In 1994, he teed it up in 23 events. He missed the cut in eight, made 10th or better only twice. His earnings went from $982,875 to $145,687, he went from ranking No 6 to ranking No. 123.
   I had gotten very analytical," he says. "And I'm not a very analytical person. So, I decided to let Payne Stewart be Payne Stewart."
   Payne Stewart as Payne Stewart went back to the swing that made him look like a 12-handicapper at a driving range. But it's not how you swing. It's where the ball lands. It's not how but how many, as the late Lloyd Mangrum used to advise.
   Payne Stewart, who used to be known as "Payne-in-the-ear" Stewart as he went from Open winner to whatever-became-of, became cheerful again, comfortable. Loopy, if you will.
   He won his first tournament in four years when Scott Hoch threw away a five-shot lead on the back nine at Houston. Payne looped the loop.
   The moral of the story is the old one: If it ain't broke, etc. If you win an Open and a PGA looped, why get straight?
   What if somebody had said to Stan Musial as he signed up, "Kid, you'll never hit the ball that way. Forget that crouch. Stand up! You look like a bush leaguer!"
   Fortunately, no one did. And, fortunately, Payne has got his loop back. He hit 18 consecutive greens with it Saturday. If he wins the Hope today, the other pros may want to know where to go to catch it.

Reprinted with permission by the Los Angeles Times

Note:  The 1996 Bob Hope Chrysler Classic was won by Mark Brooks by one (1) stroke over John Houston. Payne Stewart finished in seventh place.

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