By People Staff
November 15, 1999 12:00 PM

If ever there was someone who could crack up a crowd, even a congregation of somber-suited mourners at his own memorial service, that man was Payne Stewart. And so it was that on Friday, Oct. 29, the 3,000 people packing Orlando’s First Baptist Church, including a veritable who’s who of golf, smiled through their tears as friends and family shared memories of the colorful two-time U.S. Open champion who had lost his life in a bizarre air disaster earlier in the week. “We’re here to celebrate today,” said Rev. J.B. Collingsworth. “If you knew Payne Stewart, you know he loved a party.”

And a lot of people loved Payne, as evidenced by the famous faces who filed by the bunting-draped table covered with mementos of his life, from the gold Ryder Cup he and U.S. teammates won in September to a set of fake buck teeth, a favorite prop in his frequent practical jokes. Such golfing immortals as Jack Nicklaus shared pews with legends in the making, including Tiger Woods (who flew in from Houston, where the Tour Championship, in which Stewart would have played, had teed off the previous day after a brief memorial featuring a lone bagpiper on the mist-shrouded course). “It figures that it would take Payne Stewart to get me in a suit,” said golfer Paul Azinger, a close friend, after tucking his pants into his knee-high argyles in imitation of Stewart’s trademark knickers. “But I never thought I would stoop to this.” Eyes misted over during a brief video montage of Stewart’s life and career. (“I couldn’t continue to watch, knowing that he’s gone,” said friend Orel Hershiser, the New York Mets pitcher.) But the emotional climax of the service came during the tribute to “my soulmate and my best friend” from Stewart’s wife, Tracey, who attended with the couple’s children Chelsea, 13, and Aaron, 10. “I realize that even after 18 years of marriage, Payne was still the most beautiful man I’d ever seen,” she said, struggling to stay-composed. “Not because of the way he looked on the outside anymore, but because of what was on the inside. We love you. Let the party in heaven begin.”