Paul Azinger won a major, beating Greg Norman in a playoff at the 1993 PGA Championship; overcame lymphoma in his right shoulder; and has enjoyed critical acclaim for his candor as a broadcaster.
Still, the 50-year-old’s most enduring legacy may have been confirmed during a recent interview at a Chicago hotel restaurant, where two separate diners interrupted Zinger from his breakfast to thank him for his successful captainship at the 2008 Ryder Cup. “It’s pretty nice,” Azinger says of the gratitude, which he says he still receives just about everywhere he goes.
Relinquishing his captain’s duties and the accompanying attention hasn’t been easy, Azinger admits, but he has filled the hole with occassional rounds on the Champions Tour, guest spots on television, and writing and promoting his latest book, a tell-all about—what else?—his winning ways at the Ryder Cup. Azinger also makes time for two of his favorite pastimes, fishing and foosball.
We don’t recommend challenging him at either.
GM: Did you have a Ryder Cup letdown after it was all over?
Azinger: Yeah, a massive one. It was a two-year buildup to that crescendo moment. Even some of the players felt that. I think that’s natural when you win. Afterward, there weren’t a lot of offers for me, and I wanted to be busier. I even bought a crotch-rocket (sports car) and started driving around really fast. That’s how I got my rush for a while.
GM: Were you disappointed you didn’t get an encore captaincy for 2010?
Azinger: It’s like asking a woman right after she delivers a baby whether she wants to have another one—she’s probably going to say no. I didn’t want to be captain again right away, obviously, but as time wore on, I changed my mind and did kind of lobby for it. I thought, I can sit back and enjoy this or be a risk-taker and carry the flag to Europe in 2010. I decided to be a risk-taker, but I waited too long. By the time I called the PGA, they were already talking to Corey Pavin.
GM: How important was the U.S. win at Valhalla?
Azinger: It was pretty significant at the time. We were fighting two wars and gas was $4 a gallon. America was down in the dumps, the economy in a recession. For a few days, we weren’t Democrats and Republicans, we were all Americans.
GM: Will your Ryder Cup legacy be greater as a player or a captain?
Azinger: I don’t know. When I played in ’93, I had a feeling I was going to be a Ryder Cup captain someday. As a player, I was an overachiever. But as a captain, I might have been an overachiever, too. America had lost five of six coming in and won only four times in 25 years.
GM: Did you ever get over the fact that you broke through in ’87 but couldn’t play the Ryder Cup because you didn’t take a PGA of America business course?
Azinger: I still think about that. I had no idea that missing a sweater-folding class would keep me out of the Ryder Cup. Honestly, I’d heard of the Ryder Cup but I didn’t really know what it was then. In 1980, I couldn’t break 80 two days in a row, and suddenly in 1987, I was the player of the year. That was a big leap. All I was trying to do was get my card and get exempt. Then all of a sudden, I should’ve been on this team and I wasn’t. At the time, I didn’t know what I was missing.
GM: Should either of this year’s captains, Pavin or Colin Montgomerie, read Cracking the Code, your new book about your successful Ryder Cup strategy?
Azinger: I don’t think it would hurt. There’s a thin line between winning and losing, razor thin. The important thing to learn from this book is that the relationships trump the assets. It’s learning who these guys are and communicating with them according to their personalities. You don’t say the same thing to everybody and expect them all to react the same way.
GM: Any chance Monty will pick up your book?
Azinger: Oh, I think Monty will read the book, I really do. I don’t know if Corey will.
GM: Wasn’t it ironic that in your greatest Ryder Cup moment, you were missing the game’s greatest player?
Azinger: People ask me all the time, were you better off without Tiger Woods? I don’t know how you could think you would be. I missed having him there. I think he missed it, too. I told him a year and a half earlier how I was going to use this Navy Seals concept of breaking into small groups, either three four-man teams or four three-man teams. He loved it but was adamant it should be three four-man teams. Tiger was the main reason I wanted to be captain. I’d been thinking, Tiger is going to play 20 or so Presidents Cups and Ryder Cups, how can I do something really memorable for him? He would’ve been in the “redneck pod” with Kenny Perry, J.B. Holmes and Boo Weekley. So I think it would’ve been a week he’d never have forgotten.
GM: Does the Tour have a Tiger-addiction problem?
Azinger: It seems so. The Tour has a marketing gap. You’ve got to market and promote more than one guy. Ratings drop 60 to 80 percent without Tiger. Well, that can’t be tolerated. You’ve got to create other brands, other players. Saturday at the Daytona 500 a couple of years ago, Dale Earnhardt Jr. did $1.5 million in merchandise out of his trailer in one day. If John Daly wants to sell his brand, he has to take his trailer off site because he’s in competition with the PGA Tour. The players are really the brand, but the problem is, the PGA Tour wants to be the only brand.
GM: In 1994, in the wake of your cancer treatments, you said you felt blessed. Do you still feel that way?
Azinger: For sure. It changed my perspective on life and the world. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t very difficult. But I’ve been able to be an encourager to a lot of people who have gotten sick. I’m still kind of a poster boy for that. I get requests all the time and I call people who are sick. To be able to be that guy and make some of those calls is a blessing.
GM: How did cancer affect your career?
Azinger: I was never the same after that, never even close to the same. I won 11 tournaments in seven years as the overachiever I was and only one tournament after. I was the most confident player in the game, and it ended in an instant. I crept back into the top 20, played in a Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup and pretty much kept my card. Those were great accomplishments. Confidence is an earned commodity. You can’t buy it, you have to earn it through performance, and I never got that back. I also switched clubs when I got sick, which made me financially secure but changed my whole game. Once I took the [analyst] job at ABC, that’s when I became less prepared to compete.
GM: What was your biggest win other than the ’93 PGA?
Azinger: It was probably Hawaii [the 2000 Sony Open]. I came all the way back when I won Hawaii. Even as late as 2000, I had people asking, are you 80 or 90 percent back? Well, I was 100 percent back, I just wasn’t playing well. When I won Hawaii, those questions ended. Even the “How are you feeling?” questions finally went away.
GM: A few years ago, I tried to get you to rehash the 1987 British Open, which you lost to Nick Faldo after a bogey-bogey finish. But even 20 years later you said it was still too sensitive to discuss. What’s up with that?
Azinger: I still don’t want to talk about it. I had the flu that week and I was nervous. I didn’t eat much and I ran out of gas. My regular caddie didn’t go because he hated the food over there. The guy who replaced him was terrific but he didn’t know my game as well. I hit the wrong club Sunday into a fairway bunker on 17 and made bogey. I never should’ve hit it there. Bert Yancey [the late Tour pro] asked me after I won the Phoenix Open that year if I was playing the British, and I said I hadn’t thought about it. He said, “Zinger, you can win all the Phoenix Opens you want but you can’t make history unless you win a major, and if you don’t play the British, you’ve cut yourself out of 25 percent of the majors.” It was really a career-defining moment for me. Right then, I began playing golf for a different reason—to make history. I had that major in the palm of my hand, too—the very British Open that Bert Yancey had talked about—and I let it get away. I was 4-over on the last nine holes. I beat myself. That’s why it still hurts.
GM: You and Nick Faldo really hit your stride as a broadcast duo just as ABC checked out of golf. Were you surprised by how well you teamed up?
Azinger: Originally, I thought I was being offered the 18th tower job. Then they told me I’d be up there with Faldo and my face got hot for 20 minutes. I was thinking, How’s this going to work? He’s never spoken a complete sentence to me in 20 years. I don’t even like this guy. But it did work. We were fairly natural right away. We were each other’s safety net, too. If something happened on his hole and he didn’t know what to say, he’d point to me and I’d chime in. I’d do the same to him. I really liked that.
GM: You guys vowed to remain friendly throughout the Ryder Cup. Do you still talk?
Azinger: Sure, when we see each other. In our two years on the air, we probably went out to dinner together only a few times. The only time it got awkward was [on the air] at the Presidents Cup last year when we had to talk about a team competition, and all of a sudden it felt like maybe I was more of an authority than Nick. I don’t think he liked that. He almost disappeared in that telecast. Even the producers were saying, “Is Faldo still up there? He hasn’t said anything in a while.”
GM: Is there any chance that you guys might reunite in the booth?
Azinger: I have no idea. I’ll probably put my hat in the ring.
GM: Any players on the Tour remind you of a young Zinger, whether it’s their attitude or a unique swing?
Azinger: Paint-by-numbers isn’t the way to go about it all the time with the swing. You can end up with a nice painting, but wouldn’t you rather have a Picasso that’s all eclectic looking? Rickie Fowler is a little unusual in the way he goes at it, but he’s already proven he’s got the instincts and intestinal fortitude and the whatever-it-takes feel. He just seems to have it.
GM: Is he a Picasso or just another Chagall?
Azinger: I don’t know, time will tell.
GM: Chagall is another painter, for your information.
Azinger: My wife, Toni, was an art major. So I know who Chagall is.
GM: Speaking of artistry, have you ever hurt yourself while playing your beloved foosball?
Azinger: No, but Scott McCarron did once. He pulled a rib muscle. My back was tight some days from playing a lot the night before, but I never had a sustained injury from foosball.
GM: You said you’re taking a private jet home after this interview. It must be hard to believe that you started out on Tour in a small motor home.
Azinger: Yeah, I paid $14,000 for a 24-foot Vogue mini-motor home in the early ’80s. It was top of the line then. Toni and I didn’t own a house or apartment for two or three years. It was great. I’m thinking about going back to one, but not one of those million-dollar monsters. Maybe a nice 26-footer.
GM: Have you mentioned that to Toni yet?
Azinger: Not exactly. You think I should do that before I come home with one?
GM: That would be a good idea.
Azinger: I think you’re right.