20 years after golfer Payne Stewart’s tragic death, son Aaron carries his legacy
Aaron Stewart spent his summers on the road as a PGA Tour kid. The behind-the-scenes visits at the Columbus Zoo during the Memorial Tournament stand out among his favorite memories as well as the “music man” under the big tree on Hilton Head Island.
He grew up on tournament golf.
It’s not surprising that Stewart would want to follow in the footsteps of his father, Payne, a three-time major winner and sporting icon. A humble Aaron calls it more of a blessing than an expectation that he’s now back in golf. The former SMU player (just like dad) was recently named vice president of sports marketing for Diamond Resorts and executive director of the LPGA’s Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions.
Oct. 25 marks the 20th anniversary of the day Payne’s tragic death played out on television screens across the country. Four months after Payne won the U.S. Open at Pinehurst, a private Learjet carrying the golfer and five others crashed near Aberdeen, South Dakota, after flying on autopilot for several hours.
“The fact that this is 20 years is pretty crazy to me,” said Aaron. “To think that amount of time has gone by.”
Aaron said he recently did an interview for PGA Tour radio with his sister Chelsea, who works for AT&T, and they talked about how their dad would’ve gotten along in today’s PC society. Imagine trying to control him on Twitter, Chelsea said.
“It never came from a mean-spirited place,” said Aaron of his father’s jokes. “Everybody knew that’s Payne having a good time. He was able to get away with it.”
Aaron, 30, looks a lot like Payne. People tell him that all the time. They also tell stories, and Aaron never tires of hearing them. The Stewart family still keeps in touch with many of the PGA Tour families Aaron and Chelsea grew up with.
After completing the program, Stewart landed a job that had over 400 employees reporting to him.
“He was special,” said Flaskey of Stewart taking on such a hefty role at a young age.He grew up on tournament golf.
After several years as National OPC Program Manager and Regional Marketing Director, Stewart and his wife, Naiara, took a break from work to travel the world, an adventure that had long been in the making.
They visited 40 countries that year, spending the most time visiting family from their mom, Tracey’s, native Australia.
One of the reasons Flaskey created the Diamond Resorts TOC was to focus on a younger demographic. Millennials account for 12 percent of Diamond’s total membership.
“We know millennials want to travel,” said Flaskey. “They want to get out there and go.”
When Aaron and his wife returned to the U.S., they decided to move back to Orlando, Florida. He returned to the company in March as Director of National Partnerships.
The 2020 Diamond Resorts TOC takes place Jan. 16-19 on Tranquilo Golf Course at Four Seasons Golf and Sports Club Orlando. Winners from the last two seasons are invited to play alongside sports stars and celebrities. Eun-Hee Ji won the 2019 edition along with former Atlanta Braves pitcher John Smoltz.
The tournament, which averaged 15,000 fans over the weekend in its debut, aims to be the biggest party on tour. To that end, there will be three concerts in 2020. While LPGA pros compete for $1.2 million over 72 holes, the celebrities vie for their own $500,000 purse using a modified Stableford format. The event has raised $3.5 million for children’s healthcare.
With the LPGA adding a second stop in south Florida after the TOC – the Gainbridge LPGA at Boca Rio – the field at Tranquilo might be stronger in 2020. Michelle Wie’s victory at the 2018 HSBC Women’s World Championship makes her eligible for the season-opener should be healthy enough to compete.
Part of what attracted Flaskey to bring back a TOC format to the LPGA was the fact that it’s an earned event. In Stewart, he has found a man who is uniquely qualified to lead it.
“We just think that growing up in a lifetime of golf brings credibility to our event,” said Flaskey of Payne’s only son. “It helps us really take it to the next level.”