One warm summer afternoon a year ago, I was standing in the Old Sport Gallery in the heart of Pinehurst when my cellphone rang and I learned from a confidential source (an editor at this magazine) that for the second time in three years Pinehurst Resort had been named by T+L Golf readers as the nation’s number-one golf resort.
“An honor most well deserved,” agreed Old Sport’s genial proprietor, Tom Stewart, after I gave him the news. “I heard about it this morning, myself.”
“You did?” I was mildly thunderstruck. Then I remembered who I was talking to. In a village that lives and breathes golf, Stewart serves as something of a one-man clearinghouse. If he isn’t chatting up a guest from the resort who’s wandered over to check out Old Sport’s collection of rare golf books and memorabilia and fine art, or swapping gossip with a Tour player passing quietly through town, or spinning the latest golf joke with a local, or perhaps orchestrating a charity event, you’re likely to find this jovial spirit with his nose poked deeply in the collected writings of Leo Tolstoy or something by his hero, Thomas Merton.
Years ago I took to calling Stewart the Lord Mayor of Golftown, reflecting his de facto stature as the leading goodwill ambassador of the self-styled Home of Golf in America. Stewart, 61, also happens to be one of the game’s renaissance figures. This son of a rural Michigan postman grew up caddying at the same club where young Tom Watson played his summer golf, went on to anchor his team at tiny Aquinas College, then joined the Tour as a Monday qualifier, enjoying modest success until a yearning to see the wider world overtook him.
Stewart and fellow rabbit Fred Muller (today the head pro at Crystal Downs) took off for Australia and South America, often swapping their golf bags for backpacks. The following year Stewart played the Asian Tour, stopping off to see Mother Teresa during the Calcutta Open. She pressed him into service driving an ambulance for several months, picking up desperate people from streets of the world’s poorest city. “Nothing had a bigger impact on my life than that,” he says.
Back stateside, he ran for Congress as a Democrat in Michigan in 1984, narrowly losing to the Republican incumbent. Then he moved on to head-pro jobs in his home state and in Florida. He also gave Mikhail Gorbachev his only golf lesson and helped bring the game to Russia by teaching hundreds of kids to play. “I like to say I helped bring down the Berlin Wall,” he quips. “One golf swing at a time.”
Twelve years ago, Stewart and his Russian wife, Ilana, arrived with their young son in Pinehurst, at which point Tom hung his shopkeeper’s shingle and began trading in books, art and his unique brand of conviviality. “If it’s true that old golfers never die, they just eventually move to Pinehurst,” says the Lord Mayor of Golftown, “then I’m just following in the best traditions of the game.”