If you’re lucky enough to be in Honolulu, you might want to follow Paul Azinger this week at Waialae Country Club, one of the true (and few) classic courses that the PGA Tour visits on a regular basis. On Thursday, the winning U.S. Ryder Cup captain went around in 68, two under par, in good position to make the cut (always the first goal when you’re 49 years old) and in good position to get in contention (always a goal when you’re Paul Azinger and playing in Hawaii).
But the main reason to follow Paul Azinger at the Sony this week is that he’s at the end of the line, at least for his long, excellent and entertaining PGA Tour career. He’s talked often about looking forward to the Champions Tour, where he should be a human cash machine. In a 25-year career on the PGA Tour, few players have been as entertaining to watch. He wears his heart on his sleeve and his emotions on his face, and he controls the flight of his ball with his hands and his mouth. He talks to spectators, to his playing partners, to his caddie, to marshals, and when the round is over, to reporters. One year at the Sony, I watched Azinger watching a middle-aged marshal doing these crazy gyrating moves with her paddle to indicate where drives were going. When I asked him about it he said, “Do you see her? I could watch that act all day.”
Usually, there’s a long playing hangover for U.S. Ryder Cup captains. In 2007, the year after Tom Lehman was captain, he finished 116th on the money list. In 2005, Hal Sutton finished 248th. In 2003, Curtis Strange didn’t make a cut. In 2000, the year after Ben Crenshaw was the winning captain at the wild-ride Ryder Cup at The Country Club, he finished 240th on the PGA Tour money list. In ’98, the year after his captaincy, Tom Kite finished 159th. In ’96, Lanny Wadkins was 189th.
The last time a Ryder Cup captain came back with a reasonably strong year was Tom Watson in ’94. His team won at The Belfry in ’93 and Watson finished 43rd in his ’94 campaign. You could see Azinger doing something like that, getting himself in the top 50 this year despite his dismal play in ’08, when he finished 234th on the list. The fact is, when his head is on straight, there’s really not a weakness in his game.
It’s the same as it ever was: low draws off the tee, excellent wind player, beautiful bunker player, yip-free putting stroke in which the putterhead only goes back about three inches. He thinks his way around courses well, too. You may not have noticed that when he was in his playing prime, but you can certainly tell through his TV commentary. And now we know his real genius: sizing people up. The key to the U.S. Ryder Cup win was Azinger’s approach to his players, the “pods” that he put the players in for practice, the way he made the pairings, the individual way he approached each player. Since the Ryder Cup he’s made the observation that more people are saying “thank you” than “congratulations.” In golf, knowing people, and most particularly yourself, is a requirement for success.
At the Del Webb Father-Son Championship in December, Azinger played with Aaron Stewart, son of Azinger’s old friend Payne. Aaron is now a sophomore who plays for Southern Methodist. Azinger is still on the real Tour, for now, but he’s digging out his birth certificate for the next stop. Prior to the father-son week, Azinger and the young Stewart didn’t know each other all that well.
“I thought he was one of those old guys, hanging on,” Aaron said at a press conference before the event.
“I am, Aaron,” the inimitable Paul Azinger said. “I am.”