The man of the year in American golf didn't win a tournament or crack the top 125 on the money list. Paul Azinger did something far more important: He saved the Ryder Cup.
By overhauling an outdated selection process and coming up with a brilliant team-building strategy, Azinger, the captain of the U.S. side, accomplished something that had seemed impossible he bridged the camaraderie gap and turned Team Me into Team US, which was the key to the first U.S. victory in almost a decade.
Since that magical September week at Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville, we have also learned that while a winning U.S. captain gets a lot of love, he doesn't get much loot.
The love has been awesome. After the matches Azinger went into hibernation at home in Bradenton, Fla., and didn't resurface until almost a month later, when he played in the Justin Timberlake Shriners Hospitals for Children Open, in Las Vegas.
Azinger received the equivalent of a ticker-tape parade as he walked the fairways at TPC Summerlin. "There were a lot of 'Congratulations,' " Azinger says, "but even more people simply said, 'Thank you.' I was blown away. That might be the ultimate compliment."
Azinger says that one elderly retired military man asked to shake his hand and said, voice cracking, "I want to thank you for restoring pride in American golf."
Even when Azinger strolled through the casinos where a woman in a bikini at a blackjack table could probably go unnoticed unless she asked for a hit on 17 Azinger was stopped by well-wishers every few steps.
"You know how when you buy a new car, it's kind of a thrill?" Azinger says. "Winning the Ryder Cup has been like that. Except the new-car thing usually wears off after a few weeks. It's been six weeks, and the thrill of winning hasn't worn off. In Vegas it was as if we had won the Cup all over again. That feeling hasn't gone away at all. It has been fantastic."
Azinger has trouble turning off the Ryder Cup in his mind the thrill of the competition, the clutch shots, the passion, the agony of match play and the event's emotional pulse. On some nights even sleeping is difficult. "I'll be thinking about the Ryder Cup," he says.
Azinger is riding the wave, a crest that he says is more powerful than anything he felt after winning the 1993 PGA Championship, his lone major title. He has Ryder Cup in his blood and it's running hot, so don't blame him if he can't or won't let go of his Valhalla moments.
A U.S. Open victory is said to be worth millions in off-course opportunities. Not so the Ryder Cup. Azinger says he hasn't received a single offer post-Valhalla even his equipment deal is set to expire at year's end. Bad economy or not, the silence has been as deafening as it is surprising.
In December, Azinger will team with Aaron Stewart, Payne's 19-year-old son, in the Del Webb Father/Son Challenge and then partner with Rocco Mediate in the Merrill Lynch Shootout. Otherwise, his dance card is clean. Distressed, Azinger has been looking for new representation and will likely sign with one of the larger golf management agencies in the near future. Azinger's next act is TBD To Be Determined on almost every front.
The Champions tour is still a year away. (He won't turn 50 until January 2010.) Azinger would like to write a book about his Ryder Cup experiences a how-to tome about leadership but doesn't have a deal with a publisher. (The last winning U.S. captain, Ben Crenshaw in 1999, landed a lucrative deal for his autobiography, A Feel for the Game.) A return to the PGA Tour is an option. Azinger can get into a handful of tournaments next year through a medical exemption for back and hand injuries, although a winning Ryder Cup captain would certainly get his pick of sponsors' exemptions.
And Azinger, who has made only 22 starts in the last two years, is genuinely excited about playing. He's been working with instructor Jimmy Ballard, who has helped Mediate, another player with back problems, and Azinger is enthused about his progress. (If he can regain his scoring touch in '09, another mission impossible may fall into Azinger's lap: saving the faltering Champions tour.)
Zinger is also interested in breaking into course design, a business that has cratered in the U.S. but is booming overseas, and has had fruitless talks with a major design company.
A more likely career option is television. Zinger and Nick Faldo, the opposing captain in the Ryder Cup, formed a dynamic team on ABC from 2004 to '06. When ABC got out of the golf business, Faldo landed at CBS and Golf Channel, while Azinger came up empty. He has signed on with Golf Channel (rejoining Faldo) for two events in '09 the first three days at the Accenture Match Play Championship and the first two days of the Presidents Cup. Quick, opinionated and knowledgeable, Azinger could wind up doing more work for Golf Channel but is holding out for a lead analyst's job with one of the over-the-air networks. Unfortunately, he says, "there's simply no room for me right now."
There should be. Reuniting the Ryder Cup captains in the buttoned-down CBS tower sounds like fun. Or: Can you imagine what a shock Azinger would be to Johnny Miller's system at sycophantic NBC? As a captain, Zinger made his players better. As a TV analyst, he makes his partners better too.
A final option is a Ryder Cup encore. Almost to a man the U.S. players were campaigning for "Zinger in '10" during the postvictory celebration at Valhalla. (Even Tiger Woods says he regrets missing the chance to play for Azinger.) If Azinger does not return for the 2010 match, in Wales, he might consider '12, in Chicago.
PGA of America CEO Joe Steranka says his organization won't start searching for a new captain until the first of the year. Asked about a possible second turn for Zinger, Steranka says, "There's nothing in our policy that precludes a repeat captain. At the same time, there are a lot of deserving candidates and not enough Ryder Cups for all of them."
In other words the PGA of America prefers to spread the wealth. And if offered the job again, would Azinger accept? "I wouldn't rule it out," he says.
For now, there's time to chill. Azinger recently bought a new toy: a candy-apple-red Ford GT 40, and he had Jason Heffner, founder of Heffner Performance, juice it up because the 585-horsepower engine simply wasn't powerful enough. Azinger's twin- turboed muscle car now has more than 850 horsepower. But what about the gas mileage?
"Who cares?" Azinger says. "I can get to a gas station pretty damn fast."
Azinger's twin-engined fishing boat sat unused all summer, but now he's back on board piling up frequent- floater miles stalking snook, redfish, grouper and anything else he can hook. Azinger's house sits on the Manatee River, and on a clear day he can see the sleek Sunshine Parkway Bridge and Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg from his second-floor office.
Who needs a steady gig? Life in Zingerworld is pretty sweet.