Zinger Falls on Tough Times


ROCHESTER, N.Y. (AP) -- Maybe Paul Azinger senses time is running out on his golf career. Maybe he's past the point where he really cares.
It was 10 years this week in Ohio that a tousle-haired Azinger won the PGA Championship in a dramatic playoff with Greg Norman. At the time he was in the 'best player never to win a major' category and it seemed as if there would be many more to come.
Then Azinger got cancer, capturing the hearts of golf fans with his determination to get healthy again and return to competition. Five years later, he won more fans with a poignant eulogy for his best friend, Payne Stewart, after Stewart died in plane crash.
Those same fans lining the walkways outside the clubhouse at Oak Hill saw a different Azinger, at least for a day this week. At the age of 43, he's struggling with his game and a bad back and seems to be playing out the string.
In a few years, the senior circuit awaits, where grumpy old men go to make lots of money.
To some fans at Oak Hill, Azinger seemed to be gearing up for it already.
On Tuesday, he walked through hundreds of autograph seekers crowding the ropes between the driving range and the clubhouse, looking straight ahead and acting as if they didn't exist.
It wasn't the first time they had been stiffed by Azinger, and they weren't happy.
'That's the fourth time today, Paul,' one fan yelled. 'We're going to stop caring.'
Azinger had dutifully come to participate in the Champion's Clinic, along with other former winners. He showed the crowd a few wedge shots, then went over to the side of the driving range to work on his game.
That game isn't what it once was, and maybe that's what is wearing on him. Azinger, who has faded the ball his entire career, began hooking it last year and only recently corrected the flaw.
He's missed the cut in 11 of 16 tournaments, and pulled out of two others. His 10-year exemption for winning the PGA expires this year and he likely will need to take advantage of the career money earning exemption to play on the tour next year.
It was hard to find out much about the state of his game, though, as Azinger hurriedly changed shoes in the locker room.
His state of mind was another thing all together.
He had time for only a question or two, Azinger said, because traffic out of Oak Hill can get bad late in the afternoon and he didn't want to be caught in it. Some of those pesky autograph seekers apparently drive cars, too, or at least their parents do.
No, he said, it doesn't seem as though it has been 10 years since he won what will likely be his only major championship. And, no, he said, he didn't think at the time about whether it might be his only major win.
Did he think his career could have been better?
'Probably, but not everyone gets cancer,' Azinger said.
No they don't, and the resiliency of Azinger in battling back from lymphoma found in his shoulder a few months after he won the PGA is an inspiring story for both golf fans and cancer patients.
He came back the next year, his full head of hair gone because of chemotherapy and radiation treatments, to play in four tournaments. But he was never the same player, winning only once in 2000 in Hawaii and having only three top-3 finishes in 191 tournaments since.
Azinger still managed to string together eight consecutive finishes in the top 100 money winners, though, becoming a grinder instead of a contender. He's popular among players and his leadership qualities on the course were still so valued that Curtis Strange made him a captain's pick in the 2002 Ryder Cup.
Azinger came through with a dramatic bunker shot on the final hole to tie Niclas Fasth and postpone for a few moments Europe's eventual win over the United States.
This year, though, he's 187th on the money list and has fallen completely out of the world rankings.
Maybe that's why he grew testy when asked if he came to Oak Hill thinking he had a chance to win.
'No, I came here knowing I had no chance,' Azinger replied sarcastically.
A reporter asked him if he felt like continuing the brief interview.
'No, because you ask stupid questions,' he said.
Then it was off to the parking lot, quickly walking past another throng of fans wanting autographs and into a waiting car.
No, Azinger's not going to beat too many players this week.
But he's already one up on everyone trying to beat the traffic.
Related Links:
  • TheGolfChannel.com Bio: Paul Azinger
  • 2003 PGA Championship Home
  • More News from the 2003 PGA Championship
    Copyright 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.