25 October 2019 02:42

Cruelly, at the time of his death Payne Stewart had rediscovered his talent on the golf course.

Stewart won the US Open for a second time in June 1999, four months before his death On October 25, 1999, a private jet took off from Orlando International airport for Texas with the reigning US Open champion on board. Stewart had been heading to the Tour Championship, a big-money event for the 30 best golfers on the PGA Tour. "It's fascinating the number of people who know where they were and what they were doing that day," says Kevin Robins, author of the recently published book The Last Stand of Payne Stewart. After a routine take-off, Jacksonville Air Traffic Control made contact: "November Four Seven Bravo Alpha, Jax Centre - climb and maintain flight level three-niner-zero." Soon after 10am, more than half an hour after last contact, an F16 fighter jet from Eglin Air Force base near Pensacola, Florida - piloted by Chris Hamilton - was instructed to track the LearJet. Now she was frantically trying to prove the reports wrong; that it was not the reigning US Open champion on that stricken flight. "So many people who loved golf in the 1990s saw Payne Stewart as their favourite player," says Robbins.

"Payne Stewart really didn't reflect any of those," Robbins says. "The way he took defeat in 1998 helped him win it the next year," says Ryder Cup player and captain Colin Montgomerie. The triumph meant Stewart would play for his country once again in golf's greatest event, the biennial showdown between the US and Europe for the Ryder Cup. "The first thing he said when he came off was 'I'm in the Ryder Cup team'," recalls Montgomerie, who played against him in that 1999 match at Brookline Country Club in Boston. Four months later Stewart cemented his status as a sporting statesman at that Ryder Cup. America won after an extraordinary comeback but the contest was marred by ugly scenes on the course.

Stewart could still force a tie in his personal battle with a still-determined Montgomerie, in what was the only match left on the course. Had he survived, Stewart would be playing alongside Montgomerie on the Champions Tour for over-50s. Stewart was destined to be an enduring figure in the game; a future Ryder Cup captain and ambassador for his sport. Sunrise on Stewart's statue behind the 18th green on Pinehurst's No.2 course - where he won the 1999 US Open Montgomerie contends that pro golf these days could have done with Stewart's charismatic presence. Twenty years after American golf star Payne Stewart died in an eerie plane crash, one of Australia's finest players has paid tribute to his "friend and mentor". Stewart was killed in a Lear executive jet on October 25, 1999 at the age of 42 after the plane lost cabin pressure and flew 2400 kilometres over the US before crashing into a cornfield. Stuart Appleby, 48, a nine-times winner on the US PGA Tour, made his debut on the circuit three years before Stewart died. "I first arrived on the PGA tour in 1996 and I remember Payne being such a welcoming guy to a young kid like me," Appleby told Wide World of Sports in a statement. Payne Stewart (Getty) Appleby and golf fans were cruelly robbed of Stewart two decades ago when he and five other people died in a macabre air disaster. Payne Stewart hugs the trophy after winning the US Open. Cruelly, at the time of his death Payne Stewart had rediscovered his talent on the golf course.