On Father’s Day 1999, Phil Mickelson and Payne Stewart stood on the final hole of the U.S. Open at Pinehurst. Mickelson had a 25 foot birdie putt to tie for the lead. Stewart’s ball was 15 feet from the cup for par.
Mickelson’s birdie putt came to rest 6 inches from the hole. Payne Stewart stood over his 15 foot putt with a w.w.j.d. (“What Would Jesus Do?) bracelet on his wrist, a gift from his son a few months earlier. The putt broke to the right and dropped into the center of the cup making Stewart the 1999 US Open champion.
Mickelson had left his wife, Amy, at home expecting the birth of their daughter at any moment in order to compete. He carried a pager in case she went into labor. Winner of 13 PGA tour events, he had never won a major.
Payne Stewart joined the PGA tour a decade before, a charismatic playboy wearing knickers and a tam-o-shanter hat. He burst on the scene with a swagger, chewing bubble gum, caustic and arrogant. In 1989 he refused to shake hands with Tom Kite when he lost in a playoff for the Tour Championship. But something happened to Payne Stewart in the mid-90s. His golf game suffered. His best friend, Paul Azinger, struggled with cancer. When Stewart came to faith in Jesus Christ through the influence of his children, his conduct and values changed.
One of the most memorable photos in sports history is the image of Payne Stewart taking Phil Mickelson’s face in his hands and looking intently into his eyes trying to encourage his competitor in defeat. Knowing what Mickelson was going through at home, Stewart said. “Phil, there’s nothing like being a father!” Amanda Mickelson was born the following day.
Four months later Payne Stewart was killed when his private jet crashed in a field near Mina, SD. More than 3,000 people attended his funeral at First Baptist Church, Orlando, FL. His wife, Tracey, spoke. ''When I met Payne, I thought he was the most beautiful man I had ever seen in my life,'' she said. ''After 18 years of marriage, he was still the most beautiful man I had ever seen, not because of the way he looked on the outside anymore, but because of what he was on the inside.'' Everyone at the funeral received a w.w.j.d. bracelet.
Phil Mickelson went on to win 42 events on the PGA tour including 5 majors: 3 Masters, the PGA and the British Open. He has never won the US Open. This week, with age cutting short his chances of winning the one event that has eluded him, Mickelson chose to miss the US Open in order to attend his daughter’s graduation at Pacific Ridge High School in Carlsbad, CA. Amanda, now 18 and the school president, will deliver the valedictorian address. Mickelson said it was not a hard decision.
"It's a tournament that I want to win the most," Mickelson said. "The only way to win is if you play and have a chance. But this is one of those moments where you look back on life and you just don't want to miss it. I'll be really glad that I was there and present."