Memories of Payne Stewart at Pinehurst eternally etched in Berman’s mind

Chris Berman on the ESPN set at the 2012 U.S. Open in San Francisco with analyst Curtis Strange. (Andy Hall/ESPN)
Chris Berman at the 2012 U.S. Open in San Francisco with analyst Curtis Strange. (Andy Hall/ESPN)

Editor’s note: Tuesday on Front Row, ESPN’s Chris Berman shared some of his favorite U.S. Open memories. In this post, Berman discusses former U.S. Open champion Payne Stewart.

PINEHURST, N.C. – Play begins tomorrow at the U.S. Open as golf’s national championship returns to North Carolina’s Pinehurst No. 2. And for Chris Berman, who will cover the U.S. Open for ESPN for the 29th year, Pinehurst brings back memories of the late Payne Stewart.

Payne with 1999 U.S. Open trophy. (Copyright USGA/John Mummert)
Payne with 1999 U.S. Open trophy. (Copyright USGA/John Mummert)

Stewart won the 1999 U.S. Open, the first time the event was held at Pinehurst, in dramatic fashion with a win-sealing putt on the 72nd hole. Tragically, Stewart perished in a plane crash only months later.

Berman, who had known the golfer for years, recalled interacting with Stewart at Pinehurst that year.

“I happened to walk a practice round with him on Tuesday,” said Berman, who will host ESPN’s coverage of the first two rounds Thursday and Friday. “And then talked with him a lot at the range Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.

“Once you get to Saturday and the guys are near the lead, you don’t really want to bother them,” Berman said. “You might walk by them on the range and maybe get one little quip from them or something and say good luck. And I didn’t say much to Payne, I said good luck, and he looked back and said, ‘Have a really good day, Chris!’

Payne Stewart’s legacy subject of Hannah Storm’s espnW film

SportsCenter anchor Hannah Storm directed Love & Payne, an espnW short film that looks at the legacy of golfer Payne Stewart from the perspective of his widow, Tracey. The film is part of the Nine for IX Shorts documentary series.

“Then, he’s in the final twosome on Sunday, and he’s not hitting very well on the range,” he said. “I can see it, and he wouldn’t say much, but he’s kind of walking gingerly toward the first tee, so I said, ‘Hey Payne,’ and he wheeled around and I said, ‘Have a really good day, will ya!’ and he had a huge smile, and he said ‘You know what, I think I will.’

“I could see that he was uptight and I just did it. And of course the rest is history, and I had nothing to do with it, it was just that for whatever reason, we were able to connect that week, and what he accomplished was just unreal.”

Berman said the 1999 U.S. Open ranks as his favorite.

“It was symbolic because it was 1999,” he said. “The challengers were Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, guys in their 20s, and Payne was kind of a 20th century representative. And he held off the guys who were going to be the stars in the 21st century at this last Open of the 20th century.”

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