09/04/1998 AT 12:00 AM EDT
A U.S. open tinged with sadness kicks off this morning in Pebble Beach, Calif., without its defending champion Payne Stewart, who was killed in an eerie plane accident last October. Stewart was honored yesterday in a moving 7 a.m. tribute at Pebble Beach where his widow Tracey, more than 40 players and nearly 2,000 fans -- many of them in tears -- gathered on the 18th green for what was described as a "21-tee salute." Two waves of golfers, hearing the command "ready, aim, fire," struck golf balls off the fairway and into the Pacific in honor of the lost player who won his Second Open title a year ago in Pinehurst, N.C. "There's a huge void in my heart that only Payne can fill," said Tracey. "But my message to you today is about hope . . . No matter what the challenge, he never lost hope."