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Pro golfer Payne Stewart, 42, was First Baptist member, new believer

ORLANDO, Fla. (BP)–Payne Stewart, the world’s eighth-ranked professional golfer who was killed with five others in the crash of a small jet Oct. 25, was a member of First Baptist Church, Orlando, Fla., who, by numerous accounts, had undergone a spiritual renewal in the past year.

Stewart, 42, won the U.S. Open on Father’s Day in June — on the final hole, sinking the longest putt ever to decide the event in its 105-year history, a clutch 15-footer — and was a member of the U.S. Ryder Cup team which staged a remarkable comeback for a win over the European team in September. Stewart also had won the U.S. Open in 1991 and the PGA Championship in 1989 during a professional career, distinguished also by his knickers and tam-o’-shanter cap, that began in 1979.

“At the presentation of the coveted U.S. Open trophy, Payne revealed his trust in God and appreciation to God for helping him finish strong,” recount Jim Sheard and Wally Armstrong in an upcoming book, “Finishing the Course: Strategies for the Back Nine of Your Life,” in a section Stewart had approved for publication the week before his death.

“For Payne Stewart, this was not some hackneyed cliché. It was a revelation of his newfound faith in Christ,” Sheard and Armstrong write. “In recent months, Payne has come to faith in Christ as his Savior. He now trusts God for the provision of his strength and for the needed balance in his life.

“Some come to this point in life early, but for others, like Payne, it is later in life that we recognize who Christ really is and what he has done for us. Early or late in life, it is the most profound thing that happens to a person. It is even more profound than winning the U.S. Open at 42 years of age as Payne did,” write Sheard and Armstrong, who have written two other golfing books from a Christian perspective, “In His Grip” and “Playing the Game,” published by J. Countryman, a division of Thomas Nelson, Inc.

Stewart leaves a wife, Tracey, an Australian native, and two children, Chelsea, 13, and Aaron, 10. The children were in First Baptist’s Christian school, The First Academy, when the crash occurred around 1:15 p.m. Oct. 25.

The children were called from their classes about 15 minutes later. “They were pulled aside and told there was a problem with their dad’s plane,” Steve Smith, a First Baptist staff member told The Orlando Sentinel. “They were taken home and told at home.”

Stewart “was a wonderful Christian who had Christ in his life and somehow in his death,” Jim Henry, pastor of First Baptist, Orlando, and a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, told the Associated Press. “That brought a great sense of peace to his family in a difficult and tragic time.”

Stewart’s charitable giving prompted a separate article in The Orlando Sentinel Oct. 26, recounting, for example, that he had given $500,000 to an arm of First Baptist, The First Foundation, less than two weeks before his death and had lent his name and energies to various charity golf tournaments, most recently for the Orlando Children’s Charities, which had received nearly $500,000 for the Boys & Girls Club and other children’s organizations in the past five years.

“Tracey and I and our kids have more than we deserve, that’s just the way it is,” Stewart had been quoted as saying. “So it’s not hard to give something back.”

Stewart’s funeral will be at 11 a.m. Friday, Oct. 29, at First Baptist.

Also killed in the Oct 25 crash of the chartered twin-engine Lear 35 carrying Stewart were his two sports agents, Robert Fraley, 46, and Van Ardan, 45, also known as committed Christians; Bruce Borland, 40, senior course designer for Golden Bear International, owned by golfing great Jack Nicklaus; and pilots Michael Kling, 43, and Stephanie Bellegarrigue, 27. Fraley was CEO of Leader Enterprises Inc. and Ardan was president of the sports management company. Among Fraley’s clients were NFL coaches Bill Parcells, Bill Cowher and Dan Reeves, former NFL coach and NASCAR team owner Joe Gibbs and New York Mets pitcher Orel Hershiser.

The jet was en route from Orlando to Dallas but a suspected malfunction in cabin pressure likely killed the occupants early in the flight. The plane flew 1,400 miles across half a dozen states in the nation’s midsection before running out of fuel and crashing in a grassy field in South Dakota.

Sports Illustrated took note of Stewart’s newfound faith in its U.S. Open coverage last June, recounting that Stewart had “turned to religion, embracing Christianity with the fervor of a prison convert.” He wore a “What Would Jesus Do?” WWJD bracelet during the tournament and began each day by reading a devotional book, the magazine reported.

“There used to be a void in my life,” Stewart told Sports Illustrated, which noted that his mother, Bee, formerly had described her outspoken son as “rude;” his wife had used the word, “arrogant;” and his caddie, “impatient and not very self-confident.”

“The peace I have now is so wonderful,” Stewart told Sports Illustrated. “I don’t understand how I lived so long without it.”

“Payne talks more with God now,” his mother recounted from Springfield, Mo., Stewart’s hometown. “He’s a different man, a better son.”

USA Today, in an Oct. 26 article about Stewart’s death, also noted that Stewart’s father died of cancer in 1984 and, when his good friend and fellow PGA competitor Paul Azinger was stricken with cancer in 1994, Steward reflected, “I started talking to Paul about it and saw that he had this unbelievable faith. That started me going in a more spiritual direction.”