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Payne Stewart’s death stirs Lee Janzen to spiritual growth; another to Christ

ORLANDO, Fla. (BP)–Two professional golfers who knew Payne Stewart are walking closer with the Lord today because of the loss of their friend.

Lee Janzen and his family were baptized at a Texas church about five months before the Oct. 25, 1999, plane crash that claimed the lives of Stewart and several companions.

For Janzen, the 1998 U.S. Open champion, the tragedy emphasized that he needed to get more serious about his relationship with Christ.

“I had already realized what it meant,” Janzen said of Stewart’s unexpected death. “But it speeded up the process of learning and growing, and going from an infant in the Lord to someone growing up. I certainly came along a lot more in the past year than I did in the year leading up to that.”

While he remains in the Professional Golfers Association, the crash caused another PGA hopeful to set aside his dreams of making the tour.

Darin Hoff shot 29 rounds of below-par golf during the summer of 1999 but afterwards lost his appetite for competition.

Today the assistant golf pro at Arnold Palmer’s Bay Hill Club & Lodge in Orlando, Fla., envisions the day when he can trade his putter for the speaking circuit.

He wants to spend his time telling others about the Christ he accepted as Savior at First Baptist Church of Orlando a month after Stewart’s memorial service.

He had gone to the church to thank pastor Jim Henry and assistant pastor J.B. Collingsworth for helping Stewart’s family in their time of need. He had been a longtime friend of Stewart, since Hoff’s grandmother introduced them when Darin was just 10 years old.

After talking for a short time, Henry asked if he had ever accepted Jesus as his Savior. When he shook his head, the pastor grinned and said, “I’ve got great news for you. You’re not leaving until you do.”

Hoff then followed Collingsworth to his office. There they laughed and cried as they discussed the loss of the most important influence in Darin’s life outside of his family.

“It was in that very office that I asked Jesus to take control of my life,” Hoff said. “I remember getting up out of the chair and leaving. I didn’t feel any different, but my old life was over and [God] was about to show me things I would have never thought possible.”

Collingsworth also invited Hoff to attend Orlando Metro, a Christian singles group that meets weekly at First Baptist. There he met Kenn Kington, who has served as his spiritual mentor. Soon after, he shared his testimony with the 800 people who attend the gathering.

Over the past year, Hoff has addressed about a dozen chapter meetings or banquets of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. In addition, he has led four golfers in prayers to receive Christ as Savior on the practice tee at Bay Hill.

He is now working on a short, inspirational book about how God has worked in his life over the past year.

“Kenn Kington told me, ‘You’re probably one of the most excited speakers around, you’ll tell everyone who wants to listen and 20 percent who don’t.'”

Janzen hasn’t been quite as outspoken, although he recently asked tour chaplain Larry Moody to help him develop a speech in case he receives offers to share his testimony.

In addition, since Stewart’s death Janzen and his wife, Bev, have distributed nearly 50 copies of Josh McDowell’s book, “More Than A Carpenter.”

“It’s such a great little book,” Bev Janzen said. “It is dynamic and can be life-changing.”

The couple played a role in the salvation of a man who built a putting green at their home. Briefly discussing the change in their life, she also mailed him some spiritually based books.

At last year’s U.S. Open (the tournament Stewart won in 1999) in Pebble Beach, Calif., the man’s sister told Bev Janzen that he had accepted Christ.

“She cried and said, ‘Thank you, we’ve been trying to reach him for a long time,'” said Bev, who fought back tears as she recalled the scene. “I said, ‘You’ve got to give God the glory. He just put us in the right place at the right time.'”

That timing included leading the Janzens to First Baptist. They were touched by Collingsworth and other members they encountered at Tracey Stewart’s home after the accident.

“The people we met there had a huge impact on us,” Bev Janzen said. “That was such an incredible experience for us we immediately started talking about going to church there.

“The outpouring of love and the way they came in and [did] things for Tracey … they were so genuine with love and sharing. You could just feel the Holy Spirit there.”

Although Bev was raised in a Baptist church, Lee Janzen had grown up Presbyterian. This is his first exposure to Southern Baptist life, but it’s one that he admires. Besides joining the church last year, they also enrolled their 7-year-old son, Connor, at First Academy.

“I don’t see what’s different other than it’s straight out of the Bible,” Janzen said. “There’s no rituals or anything. It’s just unconditional love. You can feel it and sense it when you’re there.

“It’s the best moment all week when we’re in church and we see people come down the aisle and accept Christ,” he added. “That’s great any time you see that.”

Janzen’s only regret is the spiritual atmosphere on the PGA tour hasn’t changed noticeably. Weekly Bible studies generally don’t attract many newcomers, he said, and some who saw a need to change their lives after Stewart’s death have gotten distracted.

He hopes to convince some of the latter that making a decision to follow Christ is literally a matter of life and death.

“I was probably like a lot of people in America,” said Janzen, who ranks 30th among career earnings leaders on the tour. “I believed in God all along and knew who Jesus was. But until you accept that he died for my sins, you haven’t done what you’ve got to. Once you get it, it’s a wonderful thing.”
See additional sports coverage daily at BP Sports, www.bpsports.net. (BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: LEE JANZEN & JESUS.

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  • Ken Walker