Stewart's legacy is one worth living

Monday's shocking news that Payne Stewart had died in a plane crash shook more than just his family and fellow golfers.

It's one of those stories that stings a little bit after you hear it the first few times - a devoted father and husband dies after his apparently depressurized plane drifts off course for four hours, then crashes at nearly 600 mph into a South Dakota field.

That can't be fairness.

It would be easier to swallow the death of a less-recognizable figure, even though I wouldn't wish death on anyone. Every day I turn past the obituaries in the paper without a second thought, because they are just faceless names to me.

Stewart was different, and I'm not just talking about those knickers he wore. He was a recognizable - maybe even revered - figure that we got to see on television because he had this killer golf swing that looked so easy. Most people, in remembering his golf achievements, point to his U.S. Open victories, most recently this past summer at Pinehurst No. 2, or his five selections to the U.S. Ryder Cup team.

It has been said that Stewart was given the gift of golf. I prefer to think that golf was given the gift of Payne Stewart.

I'll always remember him for the grace with which he conducted himself at the Ryder Cup last month. When a U.S. golf team behaving badly stormed the 17th green after Justin Leonard's cup-clinching putt, Stewart, one hole behind, continued to play out his match with Colin Montgomerie.

Even though their match was likely to end in a tie, Stewart conceded a putt to Montgomerie on the 18th and gave his opponent the victory. The Ryder Cup had already been decided, and he showed one final measure of grace and sportsmanship that I wish kids (and adults) everywhere could mimic.

But for all his achievements on the course, it's amazing how we focus on what matters after someone dies. Payne Stewart didn't wipe out poverty or find the cure for AIDS with that effortless swing of his.

There are things just as important as the above, although they won't get the same notoriety. Stewart's colleagues praised their friend for being a loving father and husband, a man full of grace and integrity.

In other words, a real hero.

I met the man once at a recent tournament, and in a 20-minute interview I could see in him the things people like Mark O'Meara were saying this week. A man that looks you in the eye while he speaks, not in an intimidating way, but with eyes full of life and warmth. The fact that he'd treat a young and green journalist like a seasoned veteran was amazing - that he meant it made it all the more meaningful.

To him, I was more than just a kid with a media credential. To me, Payne Stewart was more than just a golfer.

He was an authentic man in an age of wannabes.

Stewart was the type of guy that could pump his fist and jump for joy at a winning putt, yet still maintain perspective about the things that matter.

When he broke a long victory drought with a win at Bay Hill in 1987, he dedicated all $108,000 of his winnings to the Golden Circle of Friends hospital in Florida. The gift was in memory of his father, who had died two years prior after a bout with cancer.

Earlier this year he donated $500,000 to the Baptist church in Orlando, Fla., he called home, a place where he found the kind of peace and solitude that he took with him to the grave.

Like the rest of us, Stewart was not a perfect man by any stretch, but in the end he tried to do what was right. Ultimately, that is the standard by which we are all measured, regardless of personal victories or wallet size.

Many of Stewart's friends believed the good changes in his life came as the result of a life transformed by his faith, something he rediscovered in the past few years.

While driving to work Tuesday afternoon, the day-to-day stresses of putting out a sports section suddenly seemed a little bit silly.

But I realized in time that every high school athlete we write about here could be a hero in the making. If in covering those hundreds of kids we help inspire even one to become like Payne Stewart, to reflect the dual virtues of competition and grace, we - the Appeal, the community, everybody - are better for it.

Perhaps it's not fair that a man died so suddenly, with so much to give. But he died at peace with both God and himself, and it doesn't get much better than that.

It's a lesson we could all learn from. I know I did.

Jeremy Littau is the Nevada Appeal sports editor.


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