How the death of one U.S. Open champion changed the life of another

By Jeff Hopper

It’s not that I’ve been godless all these years!

When I was a girl, for nine years I went to a Catholic school and was taught by the nuns. Later, when we moved to Chicago and I was still in high school, it was a group of Jewish girls who became my friends. So I had quite an ecumenical background.

But even as my golf career went forward, I knew that something in my life was not quite right. Competition carries with it a certain level of anxiety and tension. On the golf course, I was often able to harness that and capture wins—38 of them in my LPGA career.

But it wasn’t only on the golf course that I felt that tension. Nowhere in life could I find satisfaction, not in the way I was looking for it. Somehow I knew that there had to be something more than what I had, even though what I had was really quite nice: the satisfaction of knowing I could compete with the best and the trophies to prove it.

Yet I would go to my father, even as a grown woman, and ask him, “Daddy, is this all there is to life?”

He would say, “No, baby, this isn’t all there is.” But other than that, he didn’t really have much to offer. He couldn’t point the way.

Nor could my husband. I married further into the game, tying the knot with Jim Hardy in 1979. Our marriage lasted 7 1/2 years, and we remained friends even after it was over. But I still came out empty-handed.

For almost 60 years I lived like this.

And then I ran headfirst into Payne Stewart.

In 1998, Payne Stewart lost the U.S. Open.

There really is no other way to put it. He had a four-shot lead going into the final round and he fell apart on the back nine.

It was a tough week for a man who had already held the title once in 1991, but he had been able to get up and down as long as he was missing the greens on the long side. On Sunday, however, he started to miss greens where you can’t miss them, and he gave away his lead. Lee Janzen came from five back to beat Payne by a shot.

After the tournament, when he went to the pressroom for his interview, I was there. At the time, there was probably not too much sympathy for what had happened to Payne, because he was not that popular with the members of the press. They regarded him as arrogant and pompous and a lot of things they were not. Because of this, he had not endeared himself to them. And this day was no different.

The sad part, from my perspective, was that he didn’t seem to get it. He didn’t understand why people weren’t on his side, nor did he seem at all humbled by the whole experience. But I felt sorry for him.

I followed him out of the press area and met him one-on-one. I stopped him and said, “Payne, I just want to give you a hug.”

He let me. Then I said, “Payne, you are going to win soon. You are going to win this tournament soon.”

I don’t know what gave me that impression, but it was there and I said it.

A year passed, and as most of us know, there was a week of golf redemption coming for Payne. It would happen at Pinehurst, on Donald Ross’ famed No. 2 course.

With a stunning up and down from a ridiculous place on the last hole, Payne slipped past Phil Mickelson to win by a shot.

Again I was in the press tent.

But this time, things were entirely different. I mean, Payne was entirely different. The entire tone of his interview was inviting, and he spoke frequently of his new faith. It wasn’t winning that had made him different—I could tell that easily. I wasn’t certain what had changed him, but it was obvious: this was not the same man!

And then he was gone. Just a few months later, after the Ryder Cup, which was made for players like Payne, he was winding down the season. And in the final week, leaving from Florida to Houston for the Tour Championship, he never made it. Payne and his entourage were lost in one of the eeriest plane accidents we’ve ever known.

I don’t need to recount the tragedy. Virtually every golf fan remembers it. Just as we remember Payne’s funeral, if we were fortunate enough to watch it. I was.

At home alone, with my TV tuned to the Golf Channel, I watched every second of it. It lasted probably two hours, and there was a lot of testimony about Payne and his life and his faith.

One of the things that was said came from Payne’s pastor in Florida. Payne had talked to him on the Saturday night of the 1999 Open. He had admitted to his pastor that he was nervous, especially with the memory of his loss the previous year so fresh in his mind. His pastor had a simple suggestion: “Let Jesus walk with you tomorrow.”

And that, the pastor said, is what Payne did.

In that moment, it all came so clear to me. The difference in Payne Stewart’s life was that he was no longer trying to achieve things on his own.

If I hadn’t seen the difference for myself, I might not have believed it. But the difference was undeniable. On the golf course, both at sixteen and eighteen, Payne made putts that simply should not have been makeable. All that Sunday, his up-and-down shots were brilliant. And then there was that difference in the pressroom as well. Having seen all of this caused the funeral to hold the power that it did for me.

I heard Paul Azinger speak of his tremendous friendship with Payne, and about Payne’s relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. Then Tracey, Payne’s wife, spoke of it too.

I cried through the whole thing, and when it was over I had one haunting question: Where is my relationship with the Lord? Do I have one? I knew that I didn’t.

I had to call someone whom I knew had such a relationship, and the only person I could think of was my now ex-husband Jim Hardy. In the years since our marriage, I knew Jim had established a relationship with Christ.

He must have thought something terrible had happened when he answered the phone and I was on the other end, crying and crying. I guess you could say something terrible had happened—I had lived for so long without Jesus. But I still didn’t know that was what I needed until I talked to Jim.

Through my tears, I rambled to Jim, “I watched all this and Payne had such an incredible relationship with the Lord, and I don’t have one, but I know that I am a good person and that I do good things.”

He laughed, and he said, “That’s not what God wants you to do.”

I was perplexed. “It isn’t? Well what does He want me to do?”

Jim said, “He wants you to get to know Him.”

Still confused, I asked, “How am I going to do that?”

And he said, “Learn about Him through His Word, through the Bible.”

Somehow, in spite of all I had been taught growing up, I had never made a connection between the Bible and God and what I needed in my life. Suddenly the lines were being connected for me.

Jim gave me a tape from his local pastor, and after listening just once I knew that I needed to get into a Bible study and learn everything I could.

I was still teaching golf along with everything else I had been doing with the game, and soon after my conversation with Jim, one of my students told me that she and her husband were involved in a program called Bible Study Fellowship. It’s a very disciplined approach to learning the Bible that is conducted in more than 900 cities around the world.

Through this study I learned that it wasn’t by good works that I was going to gain eternity. What I needed was faith in Christ. That’s the only way to attain salvation. It’s a gift straight from God.

It didn’t take me long to realize that chasing things of the world, or chasing improving myself, were not what I needed. What I needed was the Lord. He is enough. And He loves me just the way I am.

About two years later, when Payne was inducted posthumously into the Hall of Fame, I had the opportunity to speak with Tracey Stewart, Payne’s wife.

I asked her if I could speak to her privately for a moment, and when we were alone I started crying, because I was so nervous about what I wanted to share with her.

I said, “Did many people come to the Lord because of Payne’s death, what they saw at the funeral—did that happen for many people?”

And she looked right at me and said quietly, “Many thousands.”

That took my breath away. I got to be one of those that Payne led to know Christ through his death. I am so honored because of this. I hate that such a sacrifice had to occur for me to understand, but I am so honored.


  • Carol Mann

    Carol Mann won the 1965 Women’s U.S. Open Championship. For more than 20 years she was a customer hospitality representative for corporate guests at PGA Tour events. More recently, she has served as an ambassador for the World Golf Hall of Fame, where she herself was inducted in 1977. Here she tells the story of how a golf legend changed his life, and how that transition subsequently changed her.

    Photo courtesy of World Golf Hall of Fame