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Payne Stewart’s death was part of God’s plan, his wife believes

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Months after a tragic plane crash claimed the life of her husband, championship golfer Payne Stewart, Tracey Stewart is the first to admit she still asks God, “Why?”

But she can also answer the question and frequently does as she speaks to the media since the recent publication of her book, “Payne Stewart: The Authorized Biography,” published by Broadman & Holman, the trade publishing arm of LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.

“I believe God has a plan for everyone,” Tracey Stewart told “Today” show anchor Matt Lauer in an interview aired June 1-2. For her husband, God’s plan was to call him home at the age of 42, weeks after his career soared with his second U.S. Open victory, and at a time when he was nurturing his relationship with his wife and children, Chelsea, 14, and Aaron, 11.

But the golfer who was known professionally for his colorful outfits — he brought knickers back to the game — and personally for his practical jokes, was also devoting a great deal of time to renewing his relationship with Jesus Christ.

When he died Oct. 25, 1999, in the bizarre crash of a private jet which flew 2,400 miles on automatic pilot before dropping at the speed of sound into a field in South Dakota, he wore a black nylon bracelet inscribed “W.W.J.D” — What Would Jesus Do? He also carried two small books of devotionals, which he set aside time for each night.

“He possessed a deeper, unusual sense of peace … that had not always been there,” Tracey wrote in the new book, which also tells of his early years learning golf from his father, of his 11 victories on the PGA Tour and of his 18-year marriage to the woman he met where he spent most of his time — on a golf course.

His wife and children are honoring Payne’s personal and spiritual journey by their own faith; their involvement with their hometown First Baptist Church, Orlando, Fla., and its associated school, The First Academy; and the Stewart Family Foundation, which they had established before Payne’s death to help aid disadvantaged children through several Christian organizations.

It is Tracey’s hope, and that of her coauthor, Ken Abraham, of Franklin, Tenn., that Payne Stewart: The Authorized Biography will not only honor the memory of the golfer, husband, father and Christian, but also will inspire others who are seeking a greater spiritual dimension in their lives.

“It is interesting to me how, in the last part of his life, God surrounded this guy with people who were feeding into his life positive things,” Abraham said. Payne Stewart had grown up a Christian and attended church with his family in Springfield, Mo. He had never renounced his faith, but there were busy periods in his life when it was not his priority.

“He knew Christian principles, and he tried to live that way. But a lot of things Baptists consider going along with a Christian life, Payne blew out the window,” Abraham said. As a young golfer, he was known for brashness and sometimes arrogance. And as a frustrated golfer in the early 1990s, he began drinking in a way that concerned his wife.

But God did for Payne what Abraham believes he does for everyone.

“God puts people in our lives, circumstances in our lives, to draw us closer to him,” he said. For Stewart, that meant Christian golfers like his manager, Robert Fraley, who died in the plane crash with him, and good friend Paul Azinger, whose faith in the face of cancer was a powerful example of living a Christian life under any circumstance.

Tracey Stewart and Abraham wanted to share that promise in the biography.

“A lot of this story is about how God brings hope out of tragedy,” Abraham said. “But it is also the story of a changed man, which Payne Stewart was. You heard reporters talking about that in the last year of his life, but in truth, the change had been happening over the last five or six years.”

Payne was not a man “who felt the need to stand up and quote chapter and verse about his faith, but it was a very real faith and it was growing,” he said.

Tracey’s faith, too, was growing, and when she and Abraham sat down to begin the book, they began with prayer.

“I knew we were going to be dealing with sensitive topics. It would be fun to deal with the victories, but you know where it is going to end, and we knew it would be tough,” he said.

Tracey was strong, and the book proceeded, although Abraham quick to acknowledge it was painful and emotional.

“Everybody talks about Tracey’s strength, yet I think we’d be remiss if we ignored that she lost her best friend, her husband, lover and the father of her children,” he said. “There is a lot of hurt there. She will grapple with those questions for a long time to come.

“Her faith, however, is strong, and she believes that God has a purpose, even if it is difficult to see.”

A visible sign of that is the black nylon W.W.J.D. bracelet that she wears.

In the horrible plane crash, the bodies of those aboard were destroyed, but investigators searching the wreckage found a few personal items. Among the things returned to Tracey were two jet fuel-stained devotional books and the black W.W.J.D. bracelet Payne had been wearing.

She wears it all the time as she goes about her active days, trying to live her life, with its joy and its sadness, and to set an example for her children, so that those around her can see what Jesus would do.
(BP) photos to accompany this story to be posted in the BP Photos library.

    About the Author

  • Linda Quigley