PINEHURST, N.C.--Everybody has a Payne Stewart story. But nobody's is as emotional and stirring as Phil Mickelson's.
It was right here, six years ago, that Stewart rolled in a 15-foot putt on the final hole to win the U.S. Open. When that ball fell over the crest of the cup, no one had a better view than Mickelson, who was standing just a few feet away, the victim of the moment.
Stewart's famous victory lunge is now frozen in time in the form of a statue just off the 18th green. Even his emotional condolence with Mickelson, holding the father-to-be's face in his hands, lives on in our digital memory banks.
A few months later, Stewart was dead, killed in a freak airplane accident. All of which made that moment even more poignant.
"Pinehurst is a very emotional place," Mickelson said this week as he and the rest of the golf world return to the scene. "It has a lot of sadness for me in that a lot of my memories of Payne took place here, a lot of the things I remember about Payne took place here.
"But it also has a lot of joy for me in that my wife and I shared something very special, not only the day after the event ended but throughout the whole week. It has a lot of mixed emotions for me."
Indeed, the day after losing the Open to Stewart by a single shot, Mickelson's wife, Amy, gave birth to their first child, Amanda.
If Stewart had not died, 6-year-old Amanda Mickelson would no doubt be the poster child for this year's national championship. For up until the dramatic finish, she was the biggest story of the tournament.
Throughout the week Mickelson had sworn he would leave on a moment's notice if his wife went into labor. As his name moved to the top of the leaderboard, he stuck by that promise.
As fate would have it, Amanda was born on the Monday after. To this day, Mickelson says he would have walked away from a playoff to be with his wife if Stewart had missed that winning putt.
We will never know. But life has a way of putting such silliness in perspective.
As we return to Pinehurst, filled with memories of Payne Stewart's cocky personality, intense competitiveness and unusual tenderness, it makes us all reflect on how we judge the people who fill the sports pages of our time.
Nobody wanted to win that championship more than Phil Mickelson.
He had left his very pregnant wife and flown across the country to try and win this championship. At the time, he was still bearing the cross of not having won a major.
"I didn't want to come here and finish 30th and not accomplish anything," Mickelson said. "I was very determined to play to win."
Thus he and Stewart came down the homestretch, nip and tuck, matching each other's determination shot for shot. And Tiger Woods was closing fast.
For the casual observer, it was golf at its best. Drama dripped from these old pine trees and the people standing under them were drowning in the deep end of dreams come true.
What a story if Mickelson won. What a story if Stewart won. What a story.
"Mentally I was so focused and I really thought that I was going to win this tournament," Mickelson said. "It was kind of a shock to me that it didn't happen."
But the moment and the memory belonged to Payne Stewart. And always will.
"Obviously," Mickelson says in hindsight, "everything happened the way it should have."
Ken Burger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 937-5598.