Azinger playing, but focused on Ryder Cup

Azinger playing, but focused on Ryder Cup

Paul Azinger
Jeff Gross/Getty Images

HONOLULU (AP) — Paul Azinger didn’t expect to see a large group of Americans lining up at the Sony Open to make small talk, pat him on the back or go out of their way to let him know how well they were playing.

Then again, it’s only January. The Ryder Cup is still eight months away.

Azinger is not too far removed from his best golf, the years when he was trying to make an impression on the Ryder Cup captain.

“I think the Ryder Cup is one of those things where you don’t start really sugaring up to the captain until midyear,” he said with a laugh. “They want to make sure they’re playing well before they start sliding up to you. That’s always the way I worked my little begging process. Make sure I’m playing good before I beg for what I don’t want.”

Azinger will have more decisions than any U.S. captain in recent history.

When he took the job in November 2006, he asked the PGA of America to revamp the qualifying system to help get him the hottest players. Along with basing the points on money, Azinger will get an unprecedented four captain’s picks.

As for the politicking, it wasn’t long before he was proven correct.

One day after he spoke to reporters at the Sony Open, he was walking off the putting green next to Chad Campbell. Someone called out to Campbell and asked if he already was pandering to the captain.

Campbell, who played on the 2004 team, smiled and shook his head.

“I want to see how I’m playing first,” he said.

“Told you,” Azinger chimed in.

Azinger will try to see as much of it as he can before his team is set for the Sept. 19-21 matches at Valhalla. He had a good view from the broadcast booth he shared with European captain Nick Faldo until ABC Sports stepped away from the table when the new TV contract was negotiated two years ago.

Faldo now seems to spend half his life in the booth with CBS Sports and Golf Channel.

Azinger returned to playing, although not as much.

He finished inside the top 125 on the money list two years ago for the first time since 2002, but he injured his back last summer while trying to move a boat in his garage, and missed the rest of the year. He received a major medical extension for 2008, meaning he has 13 more tournaments to earn $611,111 and finish the year.

That’s about all he wants to play.

“If you can’t make your money in 13 events, the writing is on the wall: You’re not very good,” he said.

Even playing such a limited schedule – he has never played fewer than 20 when healthy – his year figures to be busier than ever. He already finds himself consumed with the Ryder Cup, and if that wasn’t enough, his oldest daughter is getting married in June.

But don’t expect him to be camped out in front of the TV.

“I hate watching golf. I’ve got to be honest with you,” he said. “I hate the announcers.”

This brought more laughter, including a request from Azinger.

“If anyone writes that, can you please say, ‘He busted out laughing?”‘ he said, still doing just that.

Trying to gauge who might catch his attention is about as easy predicting what John Daly will do next. Azinger once jokingly tossed out the idea of taking Bubba Watson and J.B. Holmes, handing them a driver and telling them to hit it on every hole except the par 3s. He also loves Boo Weekley and the carefree attitude he brings to a team room.

But it starts with performance. More than anything, Azinger wants whomever is playing well.

And that could be anyone.

“Experience is not going to play as much of a factor,” he said. “I want guys that are red shot. Even after the PGA Championship, we have eight guys that have qualified, we have five weeks until the Ryder Cup. I think I’m going to get three tournaments to watch before I have to pick – at least two, anyway. Who knows? Some guy could have played horrible all year and win back-to-back. I’ll pick him.

“It’s likely that whoever wins the last event before the matches start might be an automatic bid. I don’t know.”

Azinger is known for his sharp opinions, no matter who might be offended. Even when the PGA Tour announced a schedule change to create a week off in the FedEx Cup playoffs before the Ryder Cup, he said, “It’s a shame they didn’t think of this before. They wouldn’t have had to go through the headache of getting it right.”

He also was among the most vocal over the tour’s new cut policy, which kept 17 players who made the cut from competing on the weekend at the Sony Open. Someone posted a sheet of paper in the locker room asking who wanted the new policy changed.

Azinger was among four names who signed under “Yes.”

“I think the tour should change the rule immediately,” he said. “I think it’s awful.”

But he watches what he says as the Ryder Cup captain. He declined every request last year for a one-on-one interview, and said media training taught him to stay on the subject so he won’t get trapped.

“I just think I’ve got to be a little more guarded because I’m not just representing myself anymore,” he said. “It’s one thing to put your foot in your mouth and you look bad, but you now represent the 28,000 men and women of the PGA of America. So they want to make sure that you take the high road if you can.”

And how has that been?

“So far, so good,” he said with a smile.

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