Payne Stewart strikes his iconic victory pose

Payne Stewart strikes his iconic victory pose after winning the 1999 U.S. Open Championship. The event returned in 2005 and 2014, and will come again in 2024. (Photograph courtesy Tufts Archives)

Pinehurst was replete with golf history before Payne Stewart made his historic putt 20 years ago Thursday at the first ever U.S. Open here.

But for those who know better — who experienced that magical moment all those years ago, who have some sense with where we’ve been and where we’re going — there is no doubt about the significance of that misty afternoon.

June 20, 1999, represents a before-and-after demarcation for Pinehurst, Pinehurst Resort, Moore County and the sport of golf. That iconic moment, the fist pump, the one-legged lean into victory, the rapture and passion of achievement — all of it has served to burnish our reputation and cement a relationship with the U.S. Golf Association that few others enjoy.

Since, Pinehurst has enjoyed an elevated reputation as a destination, as a place to do business, as a place to live — as a place that makes memories happen. All from a single 15-footer.

“1999 was the watershed moment,” said Pat Corso, the Pinehurst Resort president and CEO at the time, “that caused us to become who we are.”

A Reputation Rescued

The U.S. Open is to golf what the Stanley Cup is to hockey, or the Super Bowl to football — except the spoils of victory are bestowed not just to the winner but the host community as well. The U.S. Golf Association reserves its topmost championship for only the elite courses, as this past week’s competition at Pebble Beach shows. It is a tight rotation of just a handful of courses, so to earn a spot in that lineup is to be part of an exclusive club.

Pinehurst had enjoyed its share of professional and amateur golf tournaments and championships over the years, but an invitation to host a U.S. Open was as elusive as a valentine for Charlie Brown.

It seems hard to believe now, but Pinehurst was once a resort and club that had lost its way. The Tufts family’s sale to the real estate-minded Diamondhead Corp. in the 1970s led to a steep decline that led to the brink of bankruptcy. The Dedman family purchased the resort, and restoring its glory — appearance and reputation — took almost 20 years. Resort officials led by Corso and the late director of golf Don Padgett worked mightily to convince the USGA to try Pinehurst.

It’s hard to believe now that it was seen as such a gamble then.

Stewart’s Lasting Legacy

Then Payne Stewart sank his par putt and everything changed. Pinehurst became a magical place, a destination that even non-golfers sought out. Stewart’s tragic death later that year led the resort to commission and unveil a statue in 2001 marking Stewart’s singular gesture of victory. On any given day, scores of visitors pose with it.

Stewart’s putt aside, the 1999 U.S. Open was a rousing success. Extensive planning bore out that Moore County could embrace such a large, high-profile event.

“What was amazing is the USGA had never held an Open in such a rural area,” remembered Bev Stewart, an official with the Moore County Convention and Visitors Bureau. “I hate to use the word, but most of us at the CVB were terrified. We were on the world stage and knew if anything went wrong it would have been really bad.”

From the success of 1999, Moore County thrived. The USGA was so thrilled, it quickly announced a return of the Open in 2005, an almost unheard-of return for an event that normally cycles on 10-year calendars.

The USGA has since gone on to hold its first — and still only — back-to-back U.S. Open and Women’s Open in 2014 at Pinehurst. The USGA, which held its second U.S. Senior Women’s Open at Pine Needles last month, returns this August with its U.S. Amateur. Then, in 2022, the U.S. Women’s Open returns to Pine Needles, and Pinehurst No. 2 will host its fourth U.S. Open in 2024.

All sparked by a 15-foot roll in the cup by Pinehurst’s champion.

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