I hadn’t played very well the first half of 1991: We’d moved to Hawaii where my wife Cheryl is from, and while it was great to be there with my family, the move might not have been the best thing for my game. But the U.S. Open always had a way of getting my juices flowing, and by June I could feel things coming around.
Hazeltine was playing tough but fair, with heavy rain early in the week making it very long. In fact, that Open is sadly remembered for the Thursday thunderstorm that tore through the course. Six spectators were struck by lightning, one of them losing his life.
Payne took charge with an opening 67, but by Saturday evening I’d tied him at the top, the two of us at 210, six under par and four strokes clear of the field.
Payne and I were always friends but not close. I was quiet and had become a Christian in 1984. He was emphatically neither. But we had kids the same ages and hung out a lot at birthday parties on the road, along with the Mizes, Azingers, Pavins, and others.
Both of us played well on Sunday, and Payne’s putting was really on—I don’t think he missed once from under six feet—but I was able to pull out to a two-stroke lead with three holes to go. I felt great and thought I could win a second Open to go with the one at Olympic four years earlier. But I barely missed the fairways at 16 and 18, had to wedge out of the deep rough, and made a pair of bogeys while Payne parred in, and just like that we were in an 18-hole playoff.
On Monday, we were greeted by a totally different course—the wind had come up and conditions were dry, hard, and fast. I remember hitting a 9-iron to the 2nd that landed right next to the hole: Earlier in the week it would have been stiff, but this time it hit hard and went 40 feet by. I three-putted and went down early to Payne.
The playoff went back and forth. When I birdied 14 and Payne bogeyed, I pulled ahead and when Payne bogeyed 15 as well, I was once again two strokes up with three holes to go. At 16, we both found the green, but I three-putted again while Payne made a 25-footer, and suddenly we were tied.
He hit it stiff at 17. I yanked mine in the water but managed to get up and down for bogey, and when Payne missed the birdie I was still alive. Then another bogey at the last sealed my fate as Payne knocked in a four-footer for a two-stroke win.
I mentioned that Payne wasn’t a Christian. We’d talked about it but he wasn’t buying, although most of his Tour friends were believers. He had told our Bible study leader, Larry Moody, he was sick of hearing everyone thank God for their wins: He wanted to hear someone thank God for losing. Vintage Payne.
In my post-round interview, I congratulated Payne and then thanked God for the opportunity to be in the playoff. I said I was disappointed to lose but I’d given it my best and that’s all the Lord ever would’ve wanted from me.
Payne later told Larry he’d been moved by my words. After that, his faith grew a lot, from his kids going to a Christian school, then from watching his buddy Paul Azinger deal with cancer as he did. Payne became a devout Christian, and it really changed his priorities. He was still the life of the party, but he had more time for people, more kindness, and you could tell his love for his family was real and complete. I believe his death in 1999 affected the Tour as deeply as it did because of the man he had become.
By Scott Simpson