I don't claim to be a Payne Stewart expert or historian, but I recently discovered a little known fact about the late three-time major champion.
Dude was a yoga master.
It should not come to a surprise that no one has ever revealed this nugget until now. I only discovered it after walking 144 holes at Pinehurst on Monday, for the first of my four Hundred Hole Hikes. Pinehurst has been around for over 100 years, but certainly no one had ever walked 144 holes before at the resort. That put me in a unique Vasco da Gama-esque position to drop this little known gem on the golf community. Consider your mind blown.
You see, after 72 holes of the mental and physical toll that must come from winning a US Open (not speaking from personal experience), how does one explain that modified, single-leg warrior pose that Stewart managed pulled off? That now timeless stance has endured, because of the stage, the setting, and the spontaneity of it all. People had never seen anything quite like it.
But was it really spur of the moment? After 144 holes at Pinehurst, I can't help but wonder if he practiced it in front of a mirror on a yoga mat for months, waiting for just the right moment to spring it on the world.
I was fortunate enough to bookend my 8-round journey Monday with rounds on the famed No. 2 course, Donald Ross's gem that is making history by hosting US Open's for the men and women next year in back-to-back weeks. That's 144 holes of professionals (and a handful of amateurs) struggling to make par. Combined with the 144 holes at the resort, what better way to commemorate their first day "on the clock" as Open host with 144 holes of a very amateur golfer really struggling to make par?
Obviously, that meant my 144th and final hole would end on the 18th green of No. 2, site of one of the most memorable moments in golf history. Everybody who knows me knew exactly what that meant. There was no way I was not going to strike that pose. Nothing to it. Right?
After hitting my approach shot on the 18th to just off the back left corner of the green, a mediocre putt left me about 15 feet below the hole. Here was my Payne Stewart opportunity, minus the plus-fours and the roomy sleeveless rain jacket (the resort would make a mint if they sold these in the pro shop). I made a confident stroke, the ball curling right towards the hole for an assured par. I started lifting one leg in the air...what a way to finish the day! Then the ball lipped out. Violently.
Yes, I then proceeded to miss the three-footer coming back, amidst the groans of my two caddies, one newspaper reporter, Executive Vice President of the resort Tom Pashley (and from what i could gather, a guy who might have the best job on earth) and famed writer and Pinehurst local James Dodson. Mercifully, I made the next tap-in putt to complete a not-very stellar 85. The moment was effectively lost, but the guys were ready with cameras for the pose regardless. I planted on one leg, lifted my right arm with putter forward, raised my left leg as high as it would go (probably 6-9 inches off the ground at most). Almost immediately, my right foot gave way to the weight of 40+ miles of walking and 195-pounds of flab, and I fell over. Unlike Payne, I don't think they'll memorialize this on the Walk of Fame anytime soon.
I was determined to get it right though. A second attempt was no better than the first. Finally, I mustered up enough energy to stay upright for the 2.5 seconds it took to snap this picture.
It wasn't pretty. But it got the job done. And that pretty much summed up my golf for the day.
I came into this first hike woefully behind in terms of conditioning and golf practice -- work and an injury a couple months ago taking most of the blame. But teeing off at 5:28 am on the first hole on No. 2, I hit a six-iron into the dark abyss. Based on feel and sound alone, I assumed a toey hook into the wire grass (by the way, if you haven't been to Pinehurst since the recent renovation by Coore & Crenshaw, you simply have to check it out. This would've been thick Bermuda rough until recently.) The ball turned up right in the middle of the fairway. My second shot was again straight and just short of the green. I putted up the steep hogsback, then had a Ross-inspired three jack for my first of many double bogeys. Glad we got that out of the way. It was now 5:32 am.
By the third hole, it was light enough to see the ball pretty well, and we zoomed ahead. It was so early that they hadn't even put the flagsticks back in, which made for an interesting experience. Thankfully, one of my two caddies, Mark (FB friend and fellow GCAer Cory Lewis played the role of forecaddie for the first three rounds), looped here on Sunday and was generally familiar with the hole locations. I was just aiming for center of the green anyways, never a bad strategy in general, especially true here.
For many guests, a round on the Number 2 is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, something that you'd want to savor. The only downside to my first round was that it was too fast -- an one hour and 26 minute blur. For example, a day later, I knew I made one birdie in the first round, but couldn't recall which of the par 5's it was on (turns out it was #16). The things that did stick out most were the serene beauty and stillness of those early morning hours, the hard-packed sand in the waste areas that was just made for golf and most of all, what a great walking course No. 2 is -- probably the most walkable great course that I've ever played in the U.S. Anyone who takes a golf cart there is really missing out on a wonderful experience.
By the time we made it over to the first tee of the Number 1 course, site of our second round, one single was just finishing the hole and one was about to tee off. The nice older lady on the tee let us play through and wished me luck. We passed the other single on the third hole where he witnessed me split the fairway with a 300 yard bomb, followed by a chunked shot well short of the green. After that, it was smooth sailing. The second round was one of my better ball-striking rounds and I had my fastest round of the day at 1 hour, 17 minutes on this sporty 6,100 yard course. The only thing that prevented a sub-80 round was a self-inflicted dumb shot wound to the head on the par 3 9th, where after missing the green left and on a slope, I lazily tried to chip with my pitching wedge instead of bothering to ask Cory for the 60-degree that I always use it than situation. Predictably, I hit the ball over the green and into the back bunker. Unpredictably (or predictably, based on what you think of my golf game), I skulled the next shot into dogwooded oblivion. A quadruple bogey 7 would comeback to haunt me...81 for Round 2.
|Finishing Rd 2 on Course No. 1, 8:16 AM|
All was not lost on Course number 3 however. As I was marching down off on of the tee boxes after yet another errant drive, an older gentleman in a golf cart was making a bee line right towards me. In my checkered history as a golfer, this usually means a ranger is ready to run you off the course for some violation, so my knee-jerk reaction was to dump my driver and run the other direction. But never underestimate a retired golf member who own his own golf carts -- some have them more pimped out than a NBA player's Escalade. After he darted up the hill towards me at break neck speed and slammed on the brakes, he asked, "are you from Geneva High School, Coultrap Middle School?" I instantly recognized him as Mr. Burnell, my gym teacher and the basketball coach while I was in high school. He was a very good golfer back in the day and I knew he had retired to the Pinehurst area, but what were the chances of running into your gym teacher on the golf course 20 years later? It made my day.
For the front nine, we literally played through a foursome on every hole. Because of the preparation of the starters and the work of the rangers, everybody on the course knew I was coming. Every member was supportive of the effort, offering words of encouragement as I blitzed on by. I received every variation of the "While We're Young!" joke imaginable. The other golfers genuinely seemed excited to be out there that day with me. For reasons still unbeknownst to me, two gentlemen even asked me to sign the little handout the resort had made. I guess they wanted to show their friends proof that they played a part in this unique day. Honestly, the support spurred me on, as I played my best golf. Another dumb triple bogey derailed what should've been a round in the 70s, but I made two birdies on the front nine en route to a 40-40 80 in 1:39.
In addition to the autograph seekers, another unique experience was when a camera crew from the Fox outlet in Greensboro, NC pulled up and recorded the last few holes on Course No. 4. Thankfully, I was playing some of my best golf at the time, and recorded much of what was my longest stretch of pars in a row, five in a row from holes 12 to 16. Caddy Mark & I laughed after I hit a great shot from a fairway bunker to about 15 feet, zipping the ball back like a tour pro. I hope they use that shot! After the round, the reporter Tim interviewed me for five minutes or so, definitely a first for this relative nobody.
In my previous HHH experience, the halfway point is always a big milestone. "It's all downhill from here" is a common refrain. I wonder if marathon runners have the same thought after mile 13? It was time say goodbye to Mark and welcome in the second shift of caddies, 38-year old Jamie and 23-year old Scott. I grabbed some BLOKS electrolyte chews & some Gu gel, literally the only two things I "ate" all day. Even with the interview and the short break, we were well ahead of schedule. Getting four rounds done in just over six hours, and with about nine hours of daylight left, visions of possibly getting in a ninth round danced in my head. Last year, I also played this kind of numbers game, and it almost led to me going crazy in the oppressive 107-degree heat at Ballyneal.
The two-caddie system worked well during the Ben Cox 155, and I've just stuck with the same approach since. I don't believe any other HHHers have tried this method. Admittedly it is a little strange to have a guy carrying just three of your clubs by hand, but it is a tremendous help over the course of the day. Jamie held the driver, hybrid and putter and tended the greens (similar to Mark's role in the first shift). Scott, like Cory before him, carried the approach clubs and walked ahead to forecaddie. And given how erratic my swing was during rounds 5-8, his presence was a huge time saver.
They say a caddie is equal parts Sherpa and psychologist. This might even be more skewed to the latter during a Hundred Hole Hike. One of my other main reasons for having two caddies is just having someone to talk to. Being alone with your thoughts when you are 81 holes down, 63 to go can be a dangerous thing. Jamie and I talked about all sorts of topics - golf mostly, but also hoops, family and anything else that would make the round go by faster. Scott and I joked about how many greens I missed and how often he had to pull that 60 degree wedge for my next shot. It was like he had grown a third arm. He usually had it cocked and ready before I even hit my approach shot.
The round on Course No. 5 was probably the biggest blur of them all. Two days later, I can honestly only recall the first hole and the walk to the second vividly. My Golf Logix app shows that I birdied the par 4 5th. I am pretty sure that I rolled in a decent-length putt there. The app also shows that I shot an 81 with a time of 1:43.
With the overcast skies giving way to sun and the temperature approach 90, I could sense myself getting a little loopy mentally. Given the first five courses at Pinehurst are part of the main resort, and the other three courses are on separate properties requiring one to hop in the car, it seemed liked an opportune time to head back to my room for a quick shower to hopefully recharge the batteries. A change of clothes (channel your inner-Pat Summerall: brought to you by...Linksoul) socks (again, with feeling...Kentwool) and shoes (one more time...TRUE linkswear, of course) had me feeling like a new man. Hopefully this new man could hit the ball a little straighter than the old one.
Given when they were built, the original five courses were designed to be walker friendly. Courses No. 6 & 7 are newer courses built in that era where golf was used as a vehicle to sell houses. Course No. 6 especially has some very long green to tee walks.
On the front nine, I ran into Alex, the social media guy for the resort. Like the Fox reporter, he recorded some shot footage and a quick interview. Unlike the Fox reporter, I played some of my worst golf of the day. Two bogeys, two doubles, and a triple. A bunch of lumber hit, a few lost balls and a couple punch out shots. I can't wait to see that footage. Amazingly, Alex skipped ahead one hole briefly, a par 5 that I reached in two with a towering 6-iron from 195 yards. Where was he for that? The minute he showed up again, I was back to my foozled-self.
|"Jim, tell us what was going on in your head as your were lining up that double bogey putt?"|
For whatever reason, after Alex left, I was able to play some better golf. A birdie on the 12th combined with 13 putts on the back nine salvaged a 46-39 85. Time of play was 1:59.
From there, it was a short drive over to course #7. We were in the homestretch now, and it was officially the "grind it out" portion of the day. I was moving a little slower, and despite a birdie on the opening hole, my iron and wedge play had decided to catch an earlier flight back to O'Hare. A bunch of unforced errors just added unnecessary time and strokes to my tally.
When we started the round, the pro said there were only a couple twosomes on the course, and that we probably wouldn't catch them. I promised him that we would try. We caught the first group on the fourth hole, then another on the 7th tee. When we finished the front nine, the ranger informed us that "four foursomes of Asians" had just teed off on the back and urged us to play the front nine again. That sounded like a fine idea to me.
My initial thought was the added familiarity would only speed up my time and help me play a little better. Well, that turned out to be a misguided notion. I hit a large stone house off the first tee, quickly crushing any hope of birdieing it for a second time. I triple-bogeyed the third hole (see pics below and you'll understand why). After missing a five-footer for par on the last hole, without having really kept close tabs on my scores, I said to Scott, "That sucks. I think that putt was to break 90." Moments later, the Golf Logix app confirmed my internal golfological clock: 43-47 90 in 2 hours and 3 minutes, my only round that surpassed those two undesirable milestones.
The combination of the break after round 5, the drive between courses and the longer walks and poorer play, I went from 45 minutes ahead of schedule to 30 minutes behind. The original expected time to tee off back on Number 2 was 6:45 pm. We teed off at 7:12 pm. With dark skies, the threat of thunderstorms (going in, there was a 50% chance of storms in the afternoon) and my lengthening pace of play all looming large, for the first time all day I wondered if we'd get the full 144 in.
Thankfully, I split the first fairway again (with driver and daylight this time) and we were off to a quick start. I was quickly reminded of my earlier assessment of No. 2 -- this is simply a fantastic course to walk. Being out there with the caddies (and reporter Bret, who came back after walking the first two rounds), in the quiet of the early evening -- it felt like I owned one of the greatest golf courses in the world. How could any avid golfer, 130+ holes in the bag or not, not get a little extra spring in their step?
Further adding fuel to my fire was a well-timed call from my good friend and fellow hiker Wyatt Halliday (aka "Great Name, Even Better Guy"):
Wyatt: You answered the phone?! I totally expected to get voice mail. How'd it go?
Jim: I'm still going. I just piped down the 5th fairway.
Wyatt: I called while you're on the 5th hole of Number 2? That's the best hole in North Carolina!!!
After a few more pleasantries, further encouragement, and a couple "I love you mans", I had reached my drive with Scott ready to hand me my 6-iron.
|The fifth hole at Pinehurst No. 2|
That timely phone call from Wyatt flipped some kind of switch. I smoked that 6-iron -- uphill and just over the signature hogsback green. A very cautious lag putt got me to within three feet and I tapped in for par. A par that Jamie said was the first one he had seen on that hole in a month. Funny, the caddies said the same thing when I made par here when I first played the course back in 2000. You think I can talk my pledgers into a half-birdie bonus?
After that call, I realized it was no longer a question of if I was going to finish. Even if was dark, we'd be able to get the last few holes in regardless. So my focus shifted more to soaking in the moment and enjoying the surroundings, something that I didn't have time to do in the first go around. I went on to par the next three holes and finished the front nine with a respectable 40.
The thought of breaking 80 for the last round did cross my mind. But the body didn't quite cooperate on the back nine. I hit a drive on the 12th hole that was literally 100 yards right of where Jamie told me to hit it. It was a rare, dreaded quadruple-cross, which somehow avoided hitting any trees and just kept going deeper and deeper into the forest. Eagle-eye Scott was able to find it, and I actually had a small opening through the canopy. Amazingly, I hoisted an 8-iron high into air, through the 10-foot wide gap fifty feet in the sky, and the ball ended up on the green 20-feet below the hole. A birdie there would've been a storybook ending to an epic day. And so would have Phil Mickelson winning the US Open at Merion on his birthday. Neither was meant to be. I took it one step further by three-putting for bogey.
The rain started on the 14th hole and got progressively harder as it got progressively darker. But it was all-good at that point. Tom appeared to greet us on the 15th hole, one of very few par 3's that I hit in regulation all day (stats to follow soon, I promise). I parred 16 as well, then hit well short of the 17th hole and putted up to the green while Dodson came out of the darkness as if he were Bagger Vance.
Despite the growing gallery, no one could quite tell where my drive on 18 was headed. It felt like a low, skunky hook into the bunker to me. Jamie thought it was in the left wiregrass. Tom provided an impromptu local ruling for a free drop (no phone-ins please), and I hit my approach shot to the 144th and final green, setting up my aforementioned pathetic attempt to copy the 1999 US Open champion.
|With caddies Scott (L) and Jamie (R)|
As I stood (and eventually sat) on the veranda, I thought a lot about the special day. I thought about the bond established with the caddies through this shared experience. I thought about the opportunities we would be creating for young caddies through the fundraising for the Solich Caddie & Leadership Academy and the Evans Scholars Foundation. I thought about the numerous members and guests that had offered words of encouragement throughout the day. I realized that this crazy little idea of walking a bunch of holes in a day for charity might actually have some legs.
Most of all, I thought about Payne Stewart. The overcast weather, the intermittent rain and the fading light brought me back to the memorable battle with Mickelson (and Tiger and Vijay) in 1999. Even the caddies commented on the similarities in the conditions.
Stewart and Pinehurst have been so intertwined, even 14 years after his death. He's almost as synonymous with the resort as Donald Ross at this point. They set the Sunday pin every week in the same spot where Stewart canned his putt. Resort guests all get a picture in front of the statue. Many, like me, try to mimic that pose. In the three days I spent at the resort, I'd estimate that at least one in five conversations I overheard was somehow related to Payne Stewart or the '99 US Open.
Aside from the pose and that awkward moment where Stewart grabbed Phil's face and looked for a second like he might plant a kiss on him, the other thing that I recalled about Stewart were the stories of him growing in his Christian faith the last couple years of his life, and how the pieces were all falling into place to him, leading to a peace and strength that were the key reason he was able to win the tournament. Here is what he said after winning the US Open:
"I'm proud of the fact that my faith in God is so much stronger and I'm so much more at peace with myself than I've ever been before in my life," he said that night, his face still wet from the rain, sweat and tears. "That's the reason I was able to gather myself and collect myself [before the putt]."Four months later, he was gone, but is still not forgotten. It's hard not to wonder if this, albeit tragic, was all part of God's plan for Stewart. Would a single Open win have had the same impact on people if he had won at Olympic in 1998 instead (he had a four-stroke lead heading into the final round). Or what if Payne were still around today? Would that moment be quite as etched into people's minds?
I can't help but think about Ben Cox and his family, who after Ben's accident were only able to get through the tough times through their strong faith, leaning heavily on Romans 8:28: "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him." Seeing the impact that Ben had on others through his accident was amazing, and literally a life-changing experience for me. I questioned how a 23-year old kid could be so much more spiritually mature than a grown man who attended church every week, but like many dad's with young families, struggled just to get through the week in one piece. I wondered why I was so focused on my golf game but going through the motions in nearly every other aspect of my life. I wondered what would folks say about me if my time was cut short, other than, "Nice guy. Mean hook. Played a lot of really, really nice golf courses."
Fast forward two years...not only can I appreciate the strength that Payne Stewart must've had to hold that pose, but I am beginning to relate a bit to that peace he felt walking up that storied 18th fairway. Some folks are destined to win giant trophies. Some are destined to have their lives cut short but live on forever. Perhaps God just injected me with a passion for this great game and the uncanny ability to walk forever? Until I met Ben Cox, it never really made any sense to me. It probably still doesn't make much sense to others. But for whatever reason, walking 500 holes and 165 miles in a 17-day stretch made perfect sense at the time (though admittedly a little less sense now). I think all of us long for a life of purpose. I am the first to admit that I struggled with it for a long time. Only after faith and fate helped me discover a way to channel my life's passion into a way to help others did that sense of purpose start to reveal itself.
With the pieces starting to fall into place, I'm more firmly committed than ever to keep on hiking for meaningful causes until I can't walk anymore. At the end of my days, I hope someone will say something similar to what Paul Azinger said at Payne Stewart's memorial service:
"Payne Stewart has finished the race, he has kept the faith, and now the crown of righteousness is his. Payne Stewart loved life and loved people.. During this past year, everyone who knew Payne Stewart saw a dramatic change in his life. They saw in Payne what the Bible calls a 'peace which passes all understanding'."Next week: Ballyneal
Please support my Hundred Hole Hike for the Solich Caddie & Leadership Academy in Denver and the Evans Scholars Foundation, both providing opportunities for young caddies. For more information or to make a pledge, please go to: http://www.hundredholehike.com/golfers/jim-colton