A U.S. Open return to Pinehurst demands review of Payne Stewart vs. Phil Mickelson duel

Sure, Michael Campbell won the U.S. Open the last time we were at Pinehurst. But every visit to the Sandhills prompts a look back at the legendary finish in 1999.

As hard as it is to believe, we're now 15 years removed since Payne Stewart's U.S. Open win at Pinehurst, a tournament that many call the best in the event's now 113-year history. I say hard to believe because so much has changed since 1999, yet it seems like just yesterday we witnessed that Sunday showdown between Phil Mickelson and Payne Stewart.

As the U.S. Open returns to Pinehurst No. 2 this week, we will no doubt be reminded of the '99 Open on several occasions. That's fine by me.

The 1999 U.S. Open is about two golfers. Let's start with Stewart. Just a year earlier, he held the 54 lead at the U.S. Open but stumbled down the stretch. This was a more mature Payne Stewart, however. A younger Payne might not have persevered and put his name atop the leaderboard a year later.

This was a Stewart that had quit smoking and chewing tobacco. He finally had a control of his ADD. Most importantly, he had stability in his life and had become a "family man" as they say.

Phil Mickelson was a different story. Unlike Stewart, he had yet to capture a major title. At 29 years old, it seemed like it may finally be Phil's moment. He played well all week to put himself in position. Only a pager in his bag could stop him.

Phil's wife was back in Arizona, just days away from giving birth to the Mickelson's first child. Phil was ready to give up U.S. Open glory to be there for the birth of his daughter.

So with all of that going on, Mickelson led Payne Stewart as the two golfers played the 16th hole. Payne rolled in a 25-foot putt to save par, while Mickelson missed a short putt for par. It was his only bogey on the day.

At 17, both players knocked their tee shots close. Again, it was Stewart's putter that won out. He made birdie to lead to go up by one.

On the final hole, it looked as if Mickelson might find a way to force a playoff. Stewart hit his drive into the deep Pinehurst rough. He was forced to lay-up with his second shot. When he made it to the green, Stewart had about 15 feet for a par.

Mickelson had a look at birdie from about 25 feet. It slid by the hole and the stage was set for Stewart to inspire a statue. I'm sure you've seen it. Payne rolled in a par putt from 15 feet to win the U.S. Open. Here's a video of a couple longtime Pinehurst caddies going through how Stewart played that final hole, and then read that 25-footer for the win.

The embrace he gave to Mickelson is one of the great visuals in the history of golf. That embrace and the events of that day took on more historic meaning and importance when Payne tragically died in a plane crash a few months later.

As we head back to Pinehurst this week, Mickelson has added five (!) more runner-up finishes in the intervening years and is still searching for the white whale of his career. The memories of that first runner-up, however, will be fresh and fully exposed all week. For us golf fans, we will remember that Open as well, hoping that we can again witness something special at Pinehurst.

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