A passion unmatched

By Randall MellMay 7, 2011, 10:43 am

Seve Ballesteros could drive him crazy.

Paul Azinger once called the fiery Spaniard “The King of Gamesmanship” in their emotionally charged Ryder Cup rivalry.

But Azinger could drive Ballesteros just as crazy.

“The American team has 11 nice guys . . . and Paul Azinger,” Ballesteros once said.

They battled each other as fiercely as any Ryder Cup foes ever have.

They sparred as shot makers. They sparred psychologically. They sparred verbally.

The confrontations between Ballesteros and Azinger at Kiawah Island in 1991 made them central figures in the “War on the Shore,” the United States’ victory that elevated the Ryder Cup’s intensity. Actually, the bad blood between Ballesteros and Azinger spilled over from The Belfry two years earlier, when Azinger defeated Ballesteros in a singles match so passionately contested that Ballesteros left the match teary-eyed.

All these years later, with Saturday’s news of Ballesteros’ death, Azinger remembers his old rival with more than admiration and respect.

Azinger remembers Ballesteros’ heart, the intensity of caring that fueled the man’s competitive fire but also his generous spirit.

“Seve’s one of the first persons who called when I got sick,” Azinger told GolfChannel.com. “We had our moments that I think we regret playing out on a public stage, but we had totally resolved all that in a conversation.”

A couple months after the “War on the Shore,” Ballesteros and Azinger talked out their issues on a practice putting green in an event in Jamaica.

Azinger remembers the conversation vividly. He remembers Ballesteros telling him how the “King of Gamesmanship” comment hurt him. He remembers Ballesteros confiding that he said things just to hurt Azinger in return. He even remembers Ballesteros’ exact words in deciding they should forgive each other.

“Seve, in his classic way, says, `We’ll treat this like old toilet water. We’ll flush this,’” Azinger said.

Two years after the “War on the Shore,” Azinger was diagnosed with lymphoma, a form of cancer, in his right shoulder. Ballesteros reached out to make sure Azinger knew he cared.

“I was too sick to talk to anyone when Seve called, but when you’re sick, that’s all you need to hear, that someone called,” Azinger said. “It isn’t the words of encouragement you really remember. It’s the act, the idea he called. That meant everything.”

Ballesteros and Azinger played a Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf match at the Old Course at St. Andrews in 1995. They’ve played practice rounds together.

“People feel an emotion about Seve unlike any other player that’s ever played golf,” Azinger said.

Azinger probably summed up the nature of his relationship with Ballesteros best in his autobiography, Zinger: A Champion’s Story of Determination, Courage and Charging Back.

“I just can’t help loving the guy, except for one week every other year,” Azinger wrote.

Ballesteros is remembered as the heart and soul of so many European Ryder Cup teams. He led the ’85, ’87 and ’89 teams that won or retained the cup while turning around Europe’s foundering history in the event. He was 10-3-2 in those pivotal years. Overall, in eight Ryder Cups, Ballesteros was 20-12-5. He was also the victorious captain for the ’97 Euro squad.

Azinger met Ballesteros just three times in Ryder Cup play, but the intensity of their matches helped changed the nature of the competition.

Azinger defeated Ballesteros in a singles match and lost twice to him in partnered matches.

The complicated nature of Ballesteros’ heart led to a complicated relationship with his Ryder Cup rival.

“Seve probably had the greatest flair for the game of anybody I’ve ever played with,” Azinger said. “He had the `it’ factor, the charisma. He was very passionate and giving of his knowledge, and he was also extremely patriotic.

“I played practice rounds with Seve, and we got along great, but when we played together at the Ryder Cup, there was a whole other side to Seve. That patriotic mechanism kicked in and changed the way he played. I think his passion became even greater than what it was winning major championships.”

Azinger first played with Ballesteros at the 1987 PGA Championship at PGA National, a month after Azinger lost a chance to win the British Open.

Ballesteros, who would win five major championships, could sense the lingering disappointment hindering Azinger’s game.

“You no worry about this,” Ballesteros told Azinger at the end of their round. “You are a very good player. You have many more chances.”

A year later, at the U.S. Open, Azinger and Ballesteros were both in contention when paired in the final round at The Country Club at Brookline. Again, Ballesteros, who played himself out of contention, began rooting for Azinger, encouraging him to finish strong and win even as Azinger came up short.

When Azinger made his first Ryder Cup team at The Belfry in ‘89, he got a completely different view of Ballesteros. He pulled Ballesteros as his Sunday singles opponent. Azinger was a Ryder Cup rookie, Ballesteros the heart and soul of the European team.

It took just two holes before they were engaged in their first confrontation.

Ballesteros told Azinger that his balata ball was cut, and he was taking it out of play. Azinger wanted to see the ball, to make sure, as the rules dictated, that it was visibly cut. Azinger deemed there were groove marks on the ball, but it wasn’t cut or damaged enough to remove from play. In fact, Azinger thought his own ball was in worse shape.

After a referee intervened, upholding Azinger’s opinion, this rivalry was fully engaged with Ballesteros upset.

At the 18th hole, Ballesteros disputed a drop after Azinger hit a shot in the water, though an official once again guided Azinger’s drop. Despite a clutch holed putt at the last by Ballesteros, Azinger won the match 1 up with a terrific recovery, making Azinger an American bright spot with Europe retaining the cup.

Two years later, at Kiawah Island, fate brought Ballesteros and Azinger back together again.

In the opening morning match, Azinger and Chip Beck were teamed in alternate shot against Ballesteros and Jose Maria Olazabal, the Spanish Armada. It took two holes before Azinger and Ballesteros were squaring off over another controversial drop. At the fourth, there was an issue over a lost ball. At the ninth, another confrontation over a drop, and at the 10th hole a dispute over Azinger and Beck changing the compression of the ball they were playing.

Though 3 down at the turn, Ballesteros and Olazabal won the match 2 and 1.

As fate would have it once more, the teams were matched again in afternoon best ball. Ballesteros and Olazabal prevailed yet again, with gamesmanship accusations escalating. Azinger and Beck were annoyed at what they termed Ballesteros’ “sporadic throat-clearing.” Azinger said they were among “distractions” Ballesteros created.

Looking back, Azinger relishes the fierceness of the competition with Ballesteros.

“Seve was the most passionate player I’ve ever faced,” Azinger said. “He was tough. There was gamesmanship. We just butted heads.

“I was obviously very passionate and patriotic as well. I took the Ryder Cup personal, and I think Seve took the Ryder Cup personal.”

Azinger believes the passions exhibited in his Ryder Cup rivalry with Ballesteros were good for the international team event.

“Seve was great, and he was great for the game,” Azinger said.

Getty Images

Tiger's checklist: How he can contend at Augusta

By Ryan LavnerFebruary 21, 2018, 8:31 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Augusta is already on the minds of most players here at the Honda Classic, and that includes the only one in the field with four green jackets.

Yes, Tiger Woods has been talking about the Masters ever since he started this latest comeback at Torrey Pines. These three months are all about trying to build momentum for the year’s first major.

Woods hasn’t revealed his schedule past this week, but his options are limited. He’s a good bet to play at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, where he has won eight times, but adding another start would be a departure from the norm. He’s not eligible for the two World Golf Championship events, in Mexico and Austin, and he has never played the Valspar Championship or the Houston Open.

So there’s a greater sense of urgency this week at PGA National, which is realistically one of his final tune-ups.

How will Woods know if he’s ready to contend at Augusta? Here’s his pre-Masters checklist:

1. Stay healthy

So far, so good, as Woods tries to resume a normal playing schedule following four back surgeries since 2014. Though he vowed to learn from his past mistakes and not push himself, it was a promising sign that Woods felt strong enough to sign up for the Honda, the second of back-to-back starts on separate coasts.

Another reason for optimism on the health front: The soreness that Woods felt after his season opener at Torrey Pines wasn’t related to his surgically repaired back. No, what ached most were his feet – he wasn’t used to walking 72 holes on hilly terrain.

Woods is stiffer than normal, but that’s to be expected. His back is fused.

2. Figure out his driver

Augusta National is more forgiving off the tee than most major courses, putting more of a premium on approach shots and recoveries.

Honda Classic: Articles, photos and videos

That’s good news for Woods, who has yet to find a reliable tee shot. Clearly, he is most comfortable playing a fade and wants to take the left side of the course out of play, but in competition he’s been plagued by a two-way miss.

In two starts this year, Woods has hit only 36 percent of the fairways, no matter if he was using driver, fairway wood or long iron.

Unfortunately, Woods is unlikely to gain any significant insight into his driver play this week. PGA National’s Champion Course isn’t overly long, but there is water on 15 of the 18 holes. As a result, he said he likely will hit driver only four times a round, maybe five, and otherwise rely on his 3-wood and 2-iron. 

Said Rory McIlroy: “Being conservative off the tee is something that you have to do here to play well.”

That won’t be the case at Augusta.

3. Clean up his iron play

As wayward as Woods has been off the tee, his iron play hasn’t impressed, either.

At Riviera, he hit only 16 greens in regulation – his fewest in a Tour event as a professional. Of course, Woods’ chances of hitting the green are reduced when he’s playing from the thick rough, sand and trees, but he also misfired on six of the eight par 3s.

Even when Woods does find the green, he’s not close enough to the hole. Had he played enough rounds to qualify, his proximity to the hole (39 feet, 7 inches) would rank 161st on Tour.

That won’t be good enough at Augusta, where distance control and precision are paramount.

Perhaps that’s why Justin Thomas said last week what many of us were thinking: “I would say he’s a pretty good ways away.”

4. Get into contention somewhere

As much as he would have liked to pick off a win on the West Coast, Woods said that it’s not a prerequisite to have a chance at the Masters. He cited 2010, when he tied for fourth despite taking four months off after the fallout from his scandal.

In reality, though, there hasn’t been an out-of-nowhere Masters champion since Charl Schwartzel in 2011. Since then, every player who eventually donned the green jacket either already had a win that year or at least a top-3 finish worldwide.

“I would like to play well,” Woods said. “I would like to win golf tournaments leading into it. The years I’ve won there, I’ve played really well early.”

Indeed, he had at least one win in all of the years he went on to win the Masters (1997, 2000, ’01, ’05). Throw in the fact that Woods is nearly five years removed from his last Tour title, and it’s reasonable to believe that he at least needs to get himself into contention before he can seriously entertain winning another major.

And so that’s why he’s here at the Honda, trying to find his game with seven weeks to go. 

“It’s tournament reps,” he said, “and I need tournament reps.”

Add that to the rest of his pre-Masters checklist.

Getty Images

Players winner to get 3-year exemption into PGA

By Rex HoggardFebruary 21, 2018, 8:01 pm

Although The Players isn’t golf’s fifth major, it received a boost in that direction this week.

The PGA of America has adjusted its criteria for eligibility into the PGA Championship, extending an exemption for the winner of The Players to three years.

According to an official with the PGA of America, the association felt the winner of The Players deserved more than a single-year exemption, which had been the case, and the move is consistent with how the PGA Tour’s annual flagship event is treated by the other majors.

Winners of The Players were already exempt for three years into the Masters, U.S. Open and The Open Championship.

The change will begin with this year’s PGA Championship.

Getty Images

Thomas: Playing in front of Tiger even more chaotic

By Randall MellFebruary 21, 2018, 7:52 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Justin Thomas may be going from the frying pan to the fire of Tiger Woods’ pairings.

Translation: He’s going from being grouped with Woods last week in the first two rounds at the Genesis Open to being grouped directly in front of Woods this week at the Honda Classic.

“Which might be even worse than playing with him,” Thomas said Wednesday.

Typically, the pairing in front of Woods deals with a lot of gallery movement, with fans racing ahead to get in position to see Woods’ next shot.

Thomas was quoted after two rounds with Tiger at Riviera saying fans “got a little out of hand,” and saying it’s disappointing some golf fans today think it’s “so amusing to yell and all that stuff while we’re trying to hit shots.”

With 200,000 fans expected this week at the Honda Classic, and with the Goslings Bear Trap pavilion setting a party mood at the 16th green and 17th tee, that portion of the course figures to be quite lively at PGA National.

Honda Classic: Articles, photos and videos

Thomas was asked about that.

“I touched on this a little bit last week,” Thomas said. “I think it got blown out of proportion, was just taken out of context, and worded differently than how I said it or meant it.

“I love the fans. The fans are what I hope to have a lot of, what all of us hope to have a lot of. We want them cheering us on. But it's those certain fans that are choosing to yell at the wrong times, or just saying stuff that's completely inappropriate.”

Thomas said it’s more than ill-timed shouts. It’s the nature of some things being said.

“It's one thing if it's just you and I talking, but when you're around kids, when you're around women, when you're around families, or just around people in general, some of the stuff they are saying to us is just extremely inappropriate,” he said. “There’s really no place for it anywhere, especially on a golf course.

“I feel like golf is pretty well known as a classy sport, not that other sports aren't, but it has that reputation.”

Thomas said the nature of the 17th hole at PGA National’s Champion Course makes it a more difficult tee shot than the raucous 16th at the Waste Management Phoenix Open. Typically, players like to hear fans get into the action before or after they hit shots. Ill-timed bluster, however, makes a shot like the one at Honda’s 17th even tougher.

“That hole is hard enough,” Thomas said. “I don't need someone yelling in my ear on my backswing that I'm going to hit it in the water, to make it any harder. I hope it gets better, just for the sake of the game. That's not helping anything. That's not helping grow the game.”

Those who follow golf know an ill-timed shout in a player’s backswing is different than anything a fan says at a football, basketball or baseball game. An ill-timed comment in a backswing has a greater effect on the outcome of a competition.

“Just in terms of how much money we're playing for, how many points we're playing for ... this is our jobs out here, and you hate to somehow see something that a fan does, or something that they yell, influence something that affects [a player’s] job,” Thomas said.

Getty Images

Rory: Phil said RC task force just copied Europe

By Randall MellFebruary 21, 2018, 7:21 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Playing the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am two weeks ago, Rory McIlroy quizzed Phil Mickelson about what the Americans got out of the U.S. Ryder Cup task force’s overhaul.

McIlroy and Mickelson were paired together at Pebble Beach.

“Basically, all they are doing is copying what the Europeans have done,” McIlroy said.  “That's what he said.”

The Europeans claimed their sixth of seven Ryder Cups with their victory at Gleneagles in 2014. That brought about a sea change in the way the United States approached the Ryder Cup. Mickelson called out the tactics in Gleneagles of captain Tom Watson, who was outmaneuvered by European captain Paul McGinley.

Honda Classic: Articles, photos and videos

The Americans defeated Europe at Hazeltine two years ago with that new European model.

“He said the first thing they did in that task force was Phil played a video, a 12-minute video of Paul McGinley to all of them,” McIlroy said. “So, they are copying what we do, and it's working for them. It's more cohesive, and the team and the core of that team are more in control of what they are doing, instead of the PGA of America recruiting and someone telling them what to do.”