You wouldn’t expect boring old golf to give us the sloppiest, most joyous scene of the sports year, but the Ryder Cup has a way of uncorking unexpected emotion. In the giddy moments after the U.S. team had trounced the favored Europeans, the American players gathered on a balcony at the back of the clubhouse of Valhalla Golf Club, high above a sea of hoarse fans. Magnums of champagne were popped, and the victorious Yanks took turns schvitzing the crowd and each other, washing away a century of Ryder Cup frustration. (OK, it was merely the 21st century, as the U.S. hadn’t won a Cup since 1999.) In the middle of all the fun was U.S. captain Paul Azinger, who was shampooing his players’ hair with bubbly in between lusty swigs from whatever bottle he could get his hands around. All 12 of his players had contributed to the victory, but it was Azinger who had single-handedly changed the American team’s culture of losing.
Azinger’s fingerprints were all over the Ryder Cup before it even began. He had tweaked Valhalla to favor his collection of bombers and overhauled the team’s selection process, giving himself four captain’s picks instead of the traditional two, which offered more flexibility, but, potentially, more culpability. His most innovative move was breaking his team into three four-man clusters during the practice rounds, splitting them up by personality with each pod overseen by a like-minded assistant captain. So introverts such as Chad Campbell and Ben Curtis were guided by gentle Dave Stockton, while the cocky crew that included Phil Mickelson and Anthony Kim were the purview of famed gunslinger Raymond Floyd. Each quartet of players practiced together every day, allowing them to get to know more intimately each other’s games and personality quirks, and there was palpable chemistry when the pairings for the competition were drawn from these teams-within-a-team.
Azinger married this systematic approach to the zeal and intensity that defined his playing days. (The last shot in his storied Ryder Cup playing career was a hole-out from an 18th-hole bunker in 2002 that almost sparked an improbable comeback.) He roared around Valhalla in a golf cart, pumping his fist for the crowd and always puffing up his players with inspirational koans. At night in the team room he kept his boys loose with his zingers and legendary Foosball skills.
Azinger’s dominant captaining job provides a needed opportunity to take a fuller measure of the man. A late bloomer with an ugly grip and a homemade swing, Azinger couldn’t break 40 for nine holes until he was a high school senior. But in 1993, when he was 33, he was the hottest golfer in the world, winning the PGA Championship and three other tournaments despite a constant throbbing in his right shoulder. Four months after beating Greg Norman in a playoff for his first major championship Azinger discovered the source of that pain — lymphoma. After months of chemotherapy he beat the cancer, but his career was never the same.
In 1999 Azinger lost his best friend Payne Stewart and two close business associates, Van Ardan and Robert Fraley, all of whom died when their private plane lost compression and began a ghostly journey across the United States before crashing in a field in South Dakota. Azinger gave an unforgettable eulogy at Stewart’s funeral, his raw emotion leavened by lots of laugh lines. Three months later Zinger won his first tournament since ’93, dedicating it to the families of the crash victims. In his champion’s press conference he betrayed more wariness than exultation. “How much joy do you really feel when you know that life has so many heartaches?” Azinger wondered. “Unencumbered joy is seeing life through rose-colored glasses. I don’t see life that way anymore.”
Maybe it took this Ryder Cup to set him free. Azinger’s long, unpredictable golfing life led him to a champagne-drenched balcony at Valhalla. Watching him whoop it up with his players, the victorious captain was the picture of joy, unencumbered.