Paul Azinger pulled a tam o'shanter cap snugly over his head and rolled up his trousers to knickers-length, revealing a garish pair of argyle socks all part of a poignant tribute to his close friend, Payne Stewart.
On a table below the pulpit where Azinger offered his eulogy Friday, a gold chalice gleamed. The Ryder Cup rarely leaves its trophy case at the PGA of America headquarters, but there could be no better showcase.
In a gripping service at a church where Stewart finally found peace, he was remembered above all for his passion, for his wife and two children, for the three major championships he won, for the Ryder Cup team he would have captained and for the game that made him such an endearing figure.
"Payne Stewart loved life," said Azinger, whose garb drew applause and laughter from the crowd. "He was the life of every party."
A party is what Tracey Stewart wanted for her 42-year-old husband, who was among six people killed on Monday when his Learjet flew uncontrolled across the country before crashing into a field in South Dakota.
She remembered him as "the most beautiful-looking man I'd ever seen" when they first fell in love, and as a father who was a line judge at 13-year-old Chelsea's volleyball match, and who watched 10-year-old Aaron catch a touchdown pass two days before the fatal crash.
She was a big part of his career, too. She noticed his head moving over his putts in the third round of the U.S. Open. The next day, keeping that crucial tip in mind, he made three crucial putts on the final three holes to win the championship in spectacular fashion.
"You will always be my soulmate and my best friend. We love you. Let the party in heaven begin," she told some 3,000 people attending the memorial at the First Baptist Church, causing many to crumple.
More than 100 PGA Tour players and officials were in attendance, including Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman, former PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman, and former Ryder Cup captains Ben Crenshaw, Tom Kite and Lanny Wadkins. Also present was most of the field from the Tour Championship in Houston, including Tiger Woods, David Duval and Davis Love III.
When the two-hour service ended, they formed a line down both sides of the center aisle a protective wall for Mrs. Stewart to walk through. She held her head high and greeted them later at a private reception.
The PGA Tour shut down tournaments in Texas and Mississippi so players could honor Stewart. About 100 players were at the service, along with their wives and some caddies.
|Payne Stewart's wife, Tracey, at the memorial service|
"I love the guy," Fred Couples said. "It's so easy to say now. Looking around at all the people, it was a beautiful ceremony. I feel our hearts were lifted."
There was only one round of applause when Azinger, his close friend, reconfigured his outfit to look like Stewart.
"I figured it would take Payne Stewart to get me in a suit, but I never thought I would stoop to this," he joked. "I felt pressure this morning knowing he would be watching."
The service included a song written this week by country singer Vince Gill and played on tape, Christian singer Michael W. Smith, and a video presentation that captured some of Stewart's 18 victories and comments.
"I'm going to a special place when I die," he said in one interview played on a big screen in the church. "But I want to be sure my life is special while I'm here."
Next to the Wanamaker Trophy for his PGA Championship victory in 1989 and the U.S. Open trophy, which he won for the second time in June, was the prize that meant as much as any to Stewart the Ryder Cup, which the U.S. won last month after the greatest comeback in the 72-year history of the matches against Europe.
"Payne Stewart was a vicious competitor. He only played to win," Azinger said.
Azinger also paid tribute to Robert Fraley and Van Ardan, who also perished in the crash and were Stewart's agents as well as his own.
He concluded with a tearful "Goodbye, Payne. We loved you and we miss you, but we know we will see you again."
Displayed along with three of golf's most prized possessions were painful reminders of what Stewart's death leaves behind photos of his family on a rafting trip, and one piture taken just nine days ago with his son at the annual Father-Child tournament before the Disney Classic, Stewart's last event.
His children contributed a set of buck teeth, one of Stewart's favorite props in his role as practical joker. He once wore them on the driving range and told Mark O'Meara that he had walked into the path of someone's swing.
"I always enjoyed Payne. I never knew if he was kidding half the time," Nicklaus said after the service. "He always had a needle out to jab, but he was having fun. He had fun when he played golf, and he had fun when he was serious."
|Tiger Woods at the memorial service|
Cook recalled a trip to Pebble Beach before the U.S. Open in 1992, where Stewart was the defending champion. They went out to the 18th hole late that night and sat on a retaining wall with the trophy between them. Waves lapped against the shore below as they talked for hours and sipped a bottle of Cristal champagne.
The U.S. Open returns to Pebble Beach next year, without a defending champion.
"There won't be a U.S. Open trophy, but there will be a bottle of Cristal," Cook said of his plan to return. "I'm going to go to the wall and talk to my friend about life."
On the European PGA Tour, players at the Volvo Masters in Jerez, Spain, paused for a moment on the 18th green to remember Stewart.
"We all have been blessed by knowing and spending time with Payne," Bernhard Langer said.
For style alone, PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem compared him earlier this week to Walter Hagen, "a player who had this bigness, this presence about him, who dressed for the game, who brought excitement to it."
But there was a substance to Stewart, as well.
He was perhaps the most successful player in the U.S. Open, the toughest championship in golf, during the 1990s.
Stewart won his first U.S. Open in 1991, beating Scott Simpson in an 18-hole playoff at Hazeltine in Minnesota, then again in June with his historic putt at Pinehurst No. 2 in North Carolina.
There were failures, too. He finished two strokes ehind Lee Janzen at Baltusrol in 1993, and lost a four-stroke lead to Janzen at The Olympic Club last year.
"Don't worry about me, boys," Stewart said at the time. "I'll be back."
He kept his word.
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