At the MCI Classic, The Citadel bagpipe corps

By Doug Ferguson Associated Press Published:

At the MCI Classic, The Citadel bagpipe corps played "Amazing Grace" after a moment of silence for the two-time champion at Hilton Head. In Dallas, Byron Nelson Classic officials tied a single rose to an empty locker with Payne Stewart's name on the gold plate.

"Every week when I show up at a tournament and look down to my right or left, I say, 'Well, Payne's locker ought to be there,"' Hal Sutton said. "But it's not."

The U.S. Open will be the most painful reminder yet of what happened Oct. 25, when Stewart and five others died in a plane crash.

The last time a U.S. Open champion was unable to defend was in 1949, when Ben Hogan was critically injured in a car wreck on a foggy February morning in west Texas. He recovered to win the Open a year later at Merion.

Paul Azinger, Stewart's closest friend on tour, said players and fans will be reminded of "the shock of it all" when the U.S. Open begins next Thursday.

"It's still hard to grasp that he's not here," Azinger said. "This is our U.S. Open champion. I mean, think about that. There's a blank spot there. It's just ... disbelief. I can't describe it."

The U.S. Open always puts its defending champion in the same group with the British Open champion and U.S. Amateur champion. Jack Nicklaus will fill in for Stewart.

"We're going to miss Payne at the Open," Nicklaus said. "The tour was hit very hard by that. He was just coming into the prime of his career."

Stewart died just four months after winning his second U.S. Open and one month after helping the United States win back the Ryder Cup.

Azinger, who took Stewart's place at a news conference for the defending U.S. Open champion, is still learning about his friend, particularly how much he gave of his time and money.

"I never realized how far-reaching the guy was," Azinger said. "Everyone will pay tribute to him at the U.S. Open. They will honor Payne Stewart, and they will honor his family."

A sunrise service was scheduled for early in the week. His widow, Tracey Stewart, plans to attend the dinner Tuesday night for past champions.

"Half the time, I don't even know who won a tournament the year before," Scott Hoch said. "We might think more of the defending champion this year than any other."

Perhaps the most lasting monument to Stewart will be the sea wall on the 18th hole at Pebble Beach.

On a cool, May night eight years ago, Stewart was the defending U.S. Open champion and came to Pebble to check out the course.

A patron in the Tap Room refused to believe it was Stewart _ not without his knickers and tam o'shanter cap. Stewart offered to fetch the U.S. Open trophy to prove his identity, but only if the man would fill it with champagne.

Stewart won the bet, of course.

"He may be the only guy I know who was sorry he ever met Payne Stewart," Chuck Cook, his swing instructor, recalled at Stewart's memorial service last October.

Cook told how he and Stewart took a detour on their way to their room that night and sat down on the sea wall, placing the hallowed trophy into the sand so it wouldn't drop onto the rocks below, and spent the next several hours laughing and talking about life.

Cook said he would return.

"There won't be a U.S. Open trophy, but there will be a bottle of Cristal," he said. "I'm going to go to the wall and talk to my friend about life."

The wall runs down the last 180 yards of one of the most famous closing holes in golf. It is pounded by the surf, creating a snapshot of picturesque Pebble Beach.

For this U.S. Open, such splendor will be mixed with sadness.

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