Today, he isnt so skinny. He isnt so long-haired. And he isnt as good. But at age 41, this Floridian is back on the Ryder Cup team after an eight-year absence. He still is a kid, but an older, wiser kid. At the end of 1993, he was diagnosed with cancer in his shoulder and underwent the debilitating effects of chemotherapy. Forced for a period of time to stare death right in the face, he struggled and eventually won that battle. The fight to regain a semblance of a professional golf game took longer.
In 1996, Paul and I did a story for an English magazine in which he delved into his feelings for his country, among other things. During his three years as a Ryder Cupper, Azinger was the most rabid of competitors, bleeding red-white-and-blue all over. His confrontations with Seve Ballesteros, Europes most ardent Ryder Cupper, are legendary now. But when Curtis Strange selected Azinger as a member of the 2001 team, you knew patriotism had re-entered the Ryder Cup, I mean old-fashioned, red-blooded, salute-the-flag and hold-your-heart patriotism.
Azingers father was an Air Force officer, which must be where it came from. Paul was a normal high school boy with all the high-jinks that come to boys of that age. He caroused and played numerous pranks and sneaked a beer and generally was a bit mischievous, but nothing to suggest he would become a flag-waver.
The magazine story was quite revealing, though. What did he want the Europeans to know about him?
That Im just a typical red-blooded American boy who takes his golf pretty seriously, with no offense to anyone, he began. I just feel like Im as competitive as anybody theyd ever want to know, and everything I do, I do with malice towards no one.
I love life, I love living, Im fun to be around and the biggest kid they would ever know.
Azinger, it must be remembered, was the most disliked of any American by the European fans. But if he had been born, say, in England, he says he would have been just as drawn to that countrys flag as he is Americas.
Yes, Im sure I would, he said. I would be exactly the same in that regard.
I think love of country is a wonderful thing. I respect and admire anybody who feels that for his country. Had I been raised in England, I would be just as fiercely proud of England as I am about the USA.
Azinger can rhapsodize about some things British, proving that he isnt blinded to all things from the island. What does he most like about the United Kingdom? He loves the quietness, the majesty that is Great Britain.
The beauty, he says simply. The countryside. Incredible. The scenery. Just the overwhelming beauty of the nature of Great Britain. Its such a beautiful place.
If he could change it, there is but one thing he would dare tinker with ' 'the weather. Thats pretty simple ' just the weather. Everything else, why would anyone want to change it?
He sat beside Strange at the Monday media conference and was, well, reclusive, in a way. He politely and thoughtfully answered questions. But he knows plenty well that he wont be the focal point of the team this year. That role belongs to Woods and Duval and Mickelson and all those guys in the 20s and 30s.
But it will be a long time before we forget about Azinger and Ballesteros, both trying to achieve what they could through all means legal ' and some that were rather shady. Strange played a hunch in picking Paul, and Azinger is in no condition to guarantee Strange points for the American side. But he will give the American lads a reason to stand up to the flag, if nothing else.
Im not sure Azinger was the right pick in this age of political correctness ' after all, the situation is about as fragile as it can get, considering the ugly mood still lingering following the events at Brookline in 1999. But Paul is, if nothing else, patriotic. And if he had been born in the UK, he would have been just as British as Prince Charles. He loves his golf, but even more, he loves his flag.
Full Coverage of the 34th Ryder Cup Matches