Aaron Stewart has long day at No. 2

Payne Stewart's son shoots an 83 in North and South at Pinehurst

Staff writerJuly 1, 2009 

— Twenty-year old Aaron Stewart stood beside the bronze statue of his late father, Payne Stewart, on Tuesday afternoon overlooking the 18th green at Pinehurst No. 2 and tried to find something to smile about.

A rising redshirt sophomore at SMU, Stewart had just posted a 12-over par 83 in his first competitive round at the course where his father famously won the U.S. Open a decade ago.

It was a ragged round of golf, cluttered with misjudged approach shots and 3-putt greens, and it gave Stewart no chance of qualifying for the match-play portion of the men's North and South Amateur championship that begins today at No. 2.

With Mike Hicks as his caddie -- the same man who carried his father's bag 10 years ago -- there was a storybook quality to the younger Stewart's first competitive visit to Pinehurst. The golf, however, spoiled the ending.

"We had about as much fun as you could have out there," Stewart said. "We didn't have much fun with the golf. But having Hicksie there was awesome."

Aaron Stewart wasn't at Pinehurst when his father holed a 15-foot par putt on the 72nd hole to win the '99 Open by a stroke over Phil Mickelson.

His first visit to the village was in November 1999, when the statue of his father was dedicated, following Payne Stewart's death in a plane crash.

Stewart returned earlier this year to film a segment for ESPN, recounting his father's victory, and he played the last five holes at No. 2, his first time on the course. He played a practice round with Hicks on Monday, then on Tuesday the place showed Stewart no mercy.

Though there were 96 golfers playing for 33 available spots in the match-play bracket, Stewart was the center of attention. A small gallery followed his threesome throughout the warm, breezy day, and it became clear early that Stewart wouldn't survive the qualifier.

"I was real excited, ... and I'm really disappointed with how I played," said Stewart, who made three double bogeys in his first eight holes.

Stewart is tall and thin with sandy blond hair, and his golf game is a work in progress. He is exceptionally long off the tee, even by the outsized standards of college golf.

Unlike his father, whose game was built on feel and a smooth, natural rhythm, Aaron Stewart has a game that is more mechanical.

"There's no comparison other than the fact he looks just like his father," Hicks said. "Their games, though, are at two different ends of the spectrum."

When Hicks learned Stewart planned to play the North and South, he offered his services. He even brought the yardage book Payne Stewart used at No. 2 in the '99 Open, though they relied this week on a more updated book from 2005.

Hicks offered advice at times and let Stewart make his own decisions at other times. The caddie pointed out a few places where key shots were hit during the '99 Open, but Stewart didn't ask much about it.

"He wasn't asking me stuff. He was just playing," Hicks said.

After his round, Stewart said he felt no extra pressure because of where he was and who he is. Still, his golf game wasn't sharp, especially around No. 2's famously contoured greens, which cruelly teased him throughout the day.

Already 5 over par, Stewart got the full Pinehurst effect at the long par-4 eighth hole. Though he had only 140 yards into the green for his second shot ("His dad never had less than 191 yards in there," Hicks said of the 459-yard converted par-5 hole), Stewart missed the green with a wedge.

He attempted to putt his ball up a steep slope to the green. Thinking he had hit a good putt, Stewart began walking up the hill only to stop and walk back down as his ball rolled back, stopping near where it had been, leading to his third double bogey.

"It seemed like every hole I hit it exactly where you don't want to be," Stewart said. "It's been a long time since I was 7 over after nine holes."

When the disappointing round ended, Stewart shook hands with his playing partners and then with 48-year-old Hicks, who put his hand on his player's shoulder as they walked off the green where one of the most famous putts in U.S. Open history had been holed.

"He's a good kid," Hicks said. "He has some of the same habits as his dad, just little things that reminded me of Payne.

"It was a good experience for him. Did he learn something? I hope so."

Before leaving, Stewart and Hicks posed for photographs with the Payne Stewart statue.

They were smiling.

rgreenjr@charlotteobserver.com or 704-358-5118

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