Never meet your heroes is an adage many who go into sports writing know only too well. The completion of this sentence is allegedly “lest they have feet of clay.” In other words, in case they let you down.
I’m not the first to have been let down by meeting a golfer I’d idolised while learning and reading about this great game. Thankfully it’s only happened on a few occasions.
It didn’t happen with the late Payne Stewart, who would have been entering his 64th year this week. My experience of meeting the colourful, affable American was a bit of an eye opener, especially when another, former, hero was involved.
Stewart, who died in a plane crash in 1999, played in the 1990 Scottish Open at Gleneagles. It was my second year as a golf writer, and I was eager to profile him following his 1989 PGA Championship victory.
I approached Stewart on the Tuesday practice day and politely asked him if he could spare a few minutes for an interview. Stewart said he couldn’t talk at that moment, but to get him after the ProAm the following day
I waited with nervous anticipation at the 18th green the next day. The scene I witnessed gave me a perfect intro to my 1,500 word profile piece.
Nick Faldo played two groups in front of Stewart. He looked like he’d spent the day with the three ProAm partners from hell as he came off the 18th green. Furious doesn’t adequately describe the mood Faldo appeared to be in.
A small group of children was waiting for Faldo when he came of the 18th green. They started asking for autographs, balls, gloves, the usual stuff that goes on at most professional tournaments. Faldo just strode past them as if they didn’t exist. The kids followed him as if he was some golfing pied piper.
Even though I wasn’t writing about Faldo, I wanted to see what happened next. I followed Faldo and the kiddie troop to the scorer’s hut.
The throng of youngsters was still there when Faldo emerged as thunder faced as when he came off the 18th green. The chorus of autograph requests started up again. Faldo sort of harrumphed like Eeyore in Winnie-the-Poo. Without looking at the children, he pointed towards the practice ground and started walking briskly.
The children filed in beside him and Faldo signed as he walked. No smiles, no chat, zero interaction with the kids until he reached the safety of the practice range. He strode quickly on to the range without so much as a glance back towards the children.
Just an off day for the future knight of the realm? I'll let you be the judge of that.
I returned to the 18th green behind the throng of kids.
The contrast between Faldo and Stewart was incredible.
Stewart came off the 18th green with a smile on his face as if he’d just spent 18 holes in a friendly bounce game with mates, and had taken the money. The children repeated their can we have a ball, a glove, an autograph chorus again for Stewart. He smiled at the children and said:
“Just let me sign my scorecard and then I’ll sign autographs for everyone.”
True to his word, he did just that for about 20 minutes. He signed everything put in front of him, posed for photographs, interacted with the kids, and made sure every child was satisfied. Then he turned to me and said:
“I’m all yours.”
We spent 45 minutes sitting on the grass beside the practice putting green in the warm sun as if we were pals who hadn’t seen one another in years. He patiently answered all my questions, going much further than the questions probably deserved. When we were finished he thanked me an shook my hand.
I began that profile with the scene setter of Faldo and Stewart’s reaction to the urchins waiting beside the 18th green. One player made fans for life, the other maybe didn’t. Stewart, who would go on to win the 1991 and 1999 US Opens before his death, made me a fan for life that day.
#JustSaying: “The galleries are still important to me. They’re one of the reasons I’m still playing.” Arnold Palmer at age 56 on why he was still playing on the PGA Tour