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Payne Stewart’s legacy of faith to endure, golf chaplain says

COLUMBIA, Md. (BP)–The legacy of golfer Payne Stewart will continue to affect players and fans for many years, predicts a chaplain on the Professional Golfers Association tour.

Larry Moody, who has been counseling pro golfers since 1981, said in an interview Nov. 30 he plans to meet the week of Dec. 6 with two PGA members who have expressed a desire to accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior.

Those decisions followed Stewart’s death in a chartered jet crash Oct. 25 — and the resulting, international attention focused on his memorial service at First Baptist Church in Orlando, Fla.

Many others are open to spiritual discussions and are taking a closer look at their own relationship with Christ, said Moody, president of Search Ministries. (Although Search Ministries has an outreach to the PGA tour, the organization emphasizes discipling business and professional people.)

Moody said the death of NASCAR driver Davey Allison in a helicopter crash several years ago stirred a revival among racecar drivers. He said he expects similar effects on the PGA tour in the coming year.

“As far as conversations of an in-depth nature, where people are willing to be open and vulnerable about their own personal walk with God, I would say there is nothing that has even touched this,” Moody said. “I would think that is true wherever you have an arena where death is not a natural part of it.”

The recent tragedy sparked a realization among these famous men that they aren’t “bulletproof” or guaranteed 80 years of life, Moody said. Since God could call them home at any time, the golf chaplain said, the question they must face is whether they are ready.

“I can’t tell you how many players came up and said, ‘The peace that Payne had was his relationship with Jesus Christ; is that correct?'” Moody recounted. “I said, ‘Yes.'”

That led to several opportunities to share what it means to have a personal relationship with the Savior during a plane ride a number of pro golfers took from Houston to Orlando in a break amid the Tour Championship to attend Stewart’s memorial service at First Baptist, where Stewart, his wife and two children had been attending.

Part of Moody’s counseling during the aftermath of that service has been making sure people understand the centrality of a relationship with Jesus.

For example, some players who don’t believe in Christ have been wearing W.W.J.D. (What Would Jesus Do?) bracelets like the one Stewart publicly donned last April. Moody said these players assume they can try to live like Jesus even though they don’t know him.

The chaplain addressed that issue during a mid-November memorial service for Stewart for students and faculty of Southern Methodist University. The school gave Stewart an outstanding alumni award last year.

“Remember, there is nothing magical about this piece of cloth,” Moody told a crowd of 1,000 at Highland Park United Methodist Church in Dallas. “Payne asked the question, ‘What would Jesus do?’ because he had accepted what Jesus had done.

“Wear the bracelet if you want, but don’t forget to embrace the Savior. Having experienced the love of God by accepting Jesus as your Savior, wear the bracelet as a reminder to live life so that others may experience God’s love as well!”

After joining the tour in 1981, Stewart had been through many struggles. Among them was questioning why God allowed his father to die and the lack of peace he felt despite achieving his goals and winning major championships, Moody said.

A network of Christians led the golfer to Christ, he said. Among them were his agent, Robert Fraley, who also was among the six people killed in the crash, and fellow pro Paul Azinger, who survived a bout with cancer several years ago.

“He would go spend time with Paul and he saw a peace in Paul that he didn’t have,” Moody said. “That made him continue to investigate. Azinger [shared] a quote I had given him early in his treatment — ‘We’re not in the land of the living going to the land of the dying, we’re in the land of the dying going to the land of the living.'”

Major league baseball pitcher Orel Hershiser also played a key role, teaching a Sunday school class at First Baptist, Orlando, in the off-season. During those classes last winter, Payne came to grips with his need for a relationship with Christ, Moody said.

Stewart’s death will continue to carry significant impact in the year ahead, especially at the tournaments where he won titles in 1998. Among them are the AT&T tourney and next summer’s PGA Championship, which will both be played at California’s famed Pebble Beach course.

In addition, the PGA will start giving an annual award in 2000 to the golfer who best reflects Stewart’s life and ideals.

“Every time that award is given, people will have to wrestle with who he was, what he stood for and the change that happened in his life,” Moody said. “Payne was here for too short a time. But all of us can spend eternity with him.”

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  • Ken Walker