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Tuesday, October 26, 1999
Houston, Texas
Volume 65, Issue 46

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Payne Stewart dead at 42

Pro golfer, who expected to be in Houston, killed in plane crash

Cougar Sports Services

U.S. Open golf champion Payne Stewart and four other people were killed Monday when a private Learjet bound from Florida to Texas crashed in South Dakota after flying out of control for hours.

Government officials said the plane's pressurization may have failed. Five people were believed to be on board.

"It is difficult to express our sense of shock and sadness over the death of Payne Stewart," PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said in a statement from PGA headquarters in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.

Curtis Strange, who was named Ryder Cup captain earlier Monday and looked forward to working with Stewart, a five-time member of the United States team, was stunned by the loss.

"You never think about these things until it hits close to home," Strange said. "We've lost someone who has been a great ambassador for our game."

According to Tony Molinaro, a Federal Aviation Administration spokesman in Chicago, the aircraft left Orlando, Fla., about 9:20 a.m. bound for Dallas, and the last communication that came was when the plane was over Gainesville, Fla.

Stewart, who was 42 and living in Orlando, was expected in Houston today for practice rounds for the Tour Championship, the PGA Tour's final tournament of the year for the top 30 players on its money list.

Stewart attended SMU in Dallas and had friends in the area.

The plane, a Lear 35, had flown as high as 45,000 feet, and the crew did not respond to repeated inquiries from air traffic controllers, said Paul Turk, an FAA spokesman.

An Air Force F-16 fighter jet from Tyndall, Fla., was diverted from a routine training flight to check out the jet. Two F-15 fighters from Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., then took over to follow it. They later handed off the monitoring to two Air National Guard F-16s from Tulsa, Okla.

Gene Abdallah, superintendent of the South Dakota Highway Patrol, confirmed the plane crashed in a grassy field about two miles west of Mina, S.D., in the north-central part of the state. According to Abdallah, crews at the scene were attempting to identify the victims.

South Dakota Gov. Bill Janklow confirmed that no one in the plane survived. White House spokesman Joe Lockhart claimed no one on the ground was hurt.

Lockhart also said two FAA officials already had been dispatched to the scene of the crash, as had a National Transportation Safety Board representative.

Planes that fly above 12,000 feet are normally pressurized. Otherwise, passengers would have difficulty breathing the thin air above that altitude.

If there is a pressurization problem, those aboard the aircraft could slowly lose consciousness or, if an aircraft broke a door or window seal, perish in seconds from hypoxia or oxygen deficiency.

Once aircraft reach a cruise altitude, pilots often switch on the autopilot. If they pass out, the plane would cruise until it ran out of fuel.

The twin-engine plane was made in 1976. A Lear 35 model can seat up to 10 people.

Stewart was in the prime of a brilliant career. He was the defending U.S. Open champion and was a vital part of the recent American Ryder Cup victory in Boston. Perhaps, because of his unique clothing (old-school plaid pants and knickers), he was the most recognizable golfer on earth.

Stewart played on the PGA Tour for 20 years, winning 11 tournaments, including two U.S. Opens and a PGA Championship. The Opens came eight years apart, separated by a lengthy and troubling slump.

This season, he won two tournaments and made more than $2 million, putting him third on the PGA money list.

Stewart and his wife, Tracey, had two children: Chelsea, 13, and Aaron, 10.

Last year, Stewart made one of the most dramatic putts in PGA history to win the U.S. Open on the 72nd hole.

From the beginning, Stewart was one of the only regulars on tour who dressed in plus-fours, calling them his own little contribution to preserving the history of the game. Several times, he even played in white shirt and tie, as they did in the early part of the century.

His closet at his Orlando home was larger than some apartments, with racks and racks of shirts and knickers and one small closet for nothing but his socks.

"(The UH golf team) was in shock," UH head golf coach Mike Dirks said. "We're saddened by his death and we wish his family well.

"I didn't know Payne personally, but I admired him for what he's done for the game," Dirks continued. "He did what he believed in and spoke his mind. He was great for the game of golf."
 

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