A PGA for Plucky Paul
The year 1993 was so dramatic. Azinger was easily one of the top five players in golf. When the final major of the year was unfolding, though, Azinger was a deeply concerned man. You see, that was a championship that was won with cancer as a companion. Would he have won several more had cancer not intervened? What records would he have set? What glowing tributes would have been written had not ugly lymphoma so cruelly interrupted?
Instead of being one of the top five players in the game over the past decade, Azinger settled down into one of perhaps the top 50. He has been good, but not great. The disease robbed him of his greatness. From the peak of his greatest triumph ' winning the championship at Inverness ' came the depths of his greatest challenge: beating cancer.
Underneath his collarbone, it first began sending out an irritating little message at the 93 U.S. Open ' Somethings wrong, it whispered. It became much louder at the PGA, but that was the time for Azinger to compete, to hang in there and win the trophy. That was the time he defeated Greg Norman in a playoff. That was the time Paul Azinger outlasted all the games greats, standing alone until the end as the sole survivor.
Making it all the more meaningful was the fact that this was a championship when all the games top players played like champions. Nick Faldo challenged until the very end. Tom Watson challenged on the final day. Vijay Singh challenged, as did Norman, Lanny Wadkins, Scott Simpson and Bob Estes. It looked like football game and there was a loose ball on the ground. Everyone tried to pick it up, but only one would actually do it ' Azinger.
Azinger plodded along in neutral the first nine holes Sunday while everyone else was already in gear. He started the day only one behind, but by the turn, he was three back.
Estes took possession of the lead after he birdied the eighth, but he bogeyed the 10th from a fairway bunker and 11th after missing the green long. Next, Faldo looked like he had it. He was in command until the 15th, where he barely saved a par, and the 16th, where he missed a two-foot birdie putt for a par. That, as it turned out, kept him out of the playoff.
Wadkins had his chances but couldnt come back from a costly double bogey at No. 14. Watsons putter ' what else? ' kept him from grabbing the title. Azinger, meanwhile, was playing safety-valve golf the whole front nine and not making much of anything happen. Then he decided that if he was going to have a chance to win this tournament, he had better start taking chances.
After the ninth hole, said Azinger, I tried to be more aggressive. But there was no indication Id get that hot. It just happened.
Starting at the 12th hole, Azinger made three consecutive birdies. At 12, he lobbed a 9-iron to 12 feet. At the par-5 13th, he got up-and-down from a greenside bunker. At 14, he finally tied Norman and Faldo for the lead by knocking an 8-iron to seven feet, then sinking the birdie putt.
Norman, playing behind Azinger, retook the lead with a birdie at the 16th. But Azinger battled back on 17 with a 9-iron to five feet and another birdie.
Im a nervous person, said Azinger. Thats my deal. I walk fast. Im jumpy. But it doesnt mean I cant hit decent shots under pressure.
It could well have ended on the 72nd hole when Norman lined up a 20-foot birdie putt, then watched in dismay as it barely curled outside the cup. And a nearly identical putt occurred on the first playoff hole, again the 18th hole on the course. This time the ball actually caught an edge of the cup and spun out.
Two feet from the cup, there was no doubt in my mind that it was in, said Azinger.
It wasnt in, though, and now came the second playoff hole, the short 10th. Normans approach was a little long, about 20 feet past the cup. Azingers approach with a sand wedge stopped just eight feet away.
Norman, thinking Azinger would probably hole his putt, tried to die his effort right in the hole. It stopped four slippery feet short of the target. Azinger then putted for birdie, but it missed when it caught the right lip of the hole and caromed out.
Now it was up to Norman to keep the playoff alive. He stroked the putt firmly, but there was just enough for the ball to catch an edge and stay out. Azinger had won.
Im in a daze, said Norman. I lost to a great player Im maybe down about that first playoff hole putt. I gave it a good run. It was one of those perfect putts that just didnt go in. I got painted, as we say.
Azinger was hugely relieved. Gone was the label of best player to have never won a major. Ahead, it seemed, were many more majors. He had just finished third in the U.S. Open that year, had won two other tournaments, in fact.
And then cancer. Azinger revealed later that Dr. Frank Jobe had called the Friday night of the PGA, telling Zinger of the urgency to have a biopsy done of the right shoulder. Jobe had noticed a disturbing dark mass under the shoulder blade, and he feared the worst.
If it had been my left shoulder, I could never have played a hole of golf, Azinger said. I could swing a golf club because my right elbow is close to my side in the swing.
He waited two months to have the biopsy done and got the dreaded news early in December. The dark mass was malignant. He started chemotherapy right away, put away the golf career, and thought of nothing but living.
Norman later said that, knowing Azinger had the dreaded disease, it was much better that he won the playoff. Azinger himself was a much different person when he returned.
I realize how much my life has changed since I had cancer, Azinger said when he returned to the PGA the next year. And I understand now that I have the opportunity to be an inspiration to a lot of people who are fighting the disease, and throughout my whole cancer period, I had a wonderful prognosis. And I know a lot of people dont have the same hope that I had.
And if I can inspire them by just being out there, then thats just the way it has to be. Its a new calling almost, and Im willing to take that on. I dont have a problem with that.
Azinger did come back and win again ' at the 2000 Sony Open in Hawaii. He has even been chosen to Curtis Stranges Ryder Cup team of 2001. He has been a consistent player, if not the flashy fellow who won 11 times in six years leading up to the PGA in 93.
Paul Azinger was the PGA champion. But far more important, he is alive. Golf will always occupy a spot several notches lower, but he has a title that no one else could claim - the 1993 PGA Championship.
Winning on Kerr's mind this week and beyond
Cristie Kerr moved into position Friday to do more than win the 21st LPGA title of her career.
She moved into position to claim an LPGA Hall of Fame point this week.
Yes, winning is foremost on her mind at the Kia Classic, where she took the lead with an 8-under-par 64 in the second round, she’s on a larger quest, too.
After turning 40 last fall, Kerr was asked what her goals are.
“The Hall of Fame is attainable, if I stick with it,” she said.
Kerr is five shots ahead of Lizette Salas (67), In-Kyung Kim (69), Hee Young Park (70) and Caroline Hedwall (70).
It’s a good time for Kerr to get on a hot streak, with the year’s first major championship, the ANA Inspiration, next week. She has long been one of the best putters in the women’s game, but her ball-striking is impressive this week. She hit 17 greens in regulation Thursday, and she hit 16 on Friday.
“I like winning,” Kerr said. “I like challenging myself. Definitely doesn't get any easier as you get older, with the travel and recovery time. I got up this morning and I'm like, `Man, why does my hamstring hurt?’ From working around this hilly golf course.”
Kerr acknowledged Friday that her body is more vulnerable to time’s realities, but her mind isn’t.
“The golf ball doesn't know an age,” Kerr said. “I've always said that. As long as I stay hungry, going to just keep playing.”
Kerr won two weeks after her 40th birthday last fall, boosting her LPGA Hall of Fame point total to 22. She is five points short of eligibility for induction. A player earns one point for an LPGA victory and two points for a major championship title. So there’s a lot of Hall of Fame ground to gain this week and next.
It’s a long-term goal that motivates Kerr to take care of her body.
“I don't think the golf changes,” Kerr said. “I think, physically, it gets harder as you get older. Like I said, I've got tape on my hamstring. I strained it, just a little bit yesterday, walking around this golf course. It's tough as you get older, just being fresh and rested. I put more focus into that as I've gotten older. I still practice, but off the course I try to get more rest.”
Big names chasing Kerr into the weekend at Kia Classic
CARLSBAD, Calif. - Cristie Kerr shot an 8-under 64 on Friday in the Kia Classic to take a five-stroke lead into the weekend.
The 40-year-old Kerr had eight birdies in her second straight bogey-free round to reach 13-under 131 at rain-softened Aviara.
''I like winning. I like challenging myself,'' Kerr said. ''Definitely doesn't get any easier as you get older with the travel and recovery time. I got up this morning and I'm like, 'Man, why does my hamstring hurt?' From working around this hilly golf course. The golf ball doesn't know an age. I've always said that. As long as I stay hungry, going to just keep playing.''
She has 20 LPGA victories, winning at Aviara in 2015. She won twice last year and helped the U.S. beat Europe in her ninth Solheim Cup appearance.
''It's tough as you get older just being fresh and rested,'' Kerr said. ''I put more focus into that as I've gotten older. I still practice, but off the course I try to get more rest.''
Lizette Salas, In-Kyung Kim, Hee Young Park and Caroline Hedwall were tied for second. Salas shot 67, Kim 69, and Park and Hedwall 70.
''I really like this golf course. I really like the environment,'' said Salas, the former University of Southern California player from Azusa. ''My family gets to come out. So much confidence at the beginning of the week, and definitely showed the first two days.
Jeong Eun Lee was 7 under after a 69, and defending ANA champion So Yeon Ryu had a 70 to get to 6 under.
Ariya Jutanugarn (72), Brooke Henderson (70) and 2016 winner Lydia Ko (71) were 5 under. Shanshan Feng (68) was another stroke back, and Singapore winner Michelle Wie (72) was 1 under.
Lexi Thompson was 2 over after a 74, making the cut on the number in the final event before the major ANA Inspiration next week at Mission Hills.
Kerr opened with birdies on the par-5 10th and par-3 11th, added birdies on the par-4 16th, 18th and second, and ran off three in a row on the par-3 sixth, par-4 seventh and par-5 eighth.
''I don't think you can fall asleep on one shot,'' Kerr said. ''It's a really good golf course. I think I play better on courses that demand the focus, so I think that's why I've played well here in the past. ... I'm trying not to put limits on myself right now. I've got some good things going on with my swing.''
She has long been one best putters and green-readers in the world.
''I can see the subtleties that a lot of people can't,'' Kerr said. ''It's a gift from God being able to do that. I've always had that, so I'm lucky.''
Laura Davies withdrew after an opening 82. The 54-year-old Davies tied for second last week in the Founders Cup in Phoenix, playing through painful left Achilles and calf problems.
DJ hits 489-yard drive, but it doesn't count for history
AUSTIN, Texas – Dustin Johnson is no stranger to big drives, but even for DJ this one was impressive.
Trailing in his Day 3 match at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, Johnson launched a drive at the par-5 12th hole that traveled 489 yards, but that number comes with an asterisk.
“He got lucky it hit the road,” smiled Kevin Kisner, who was leading the world No. 1, 3 up, at the time. “I thought he would make an eagle for sure, he only had 80 yards [to the hole]. He didn’t hit a very good putt.”
Johnson’s drive, which was 139 yards past Kisner’s tee shot, is the longest recorded on the PGA Tour in the ShotLink era, surpassing Davis Love III’s drive of 476 yards in 2004 at the Tournament of Champions.
The drive will not go into the record books, however, because the Tour doesn’t count statistics from the Match Play.
It should also be noted, Kisner halved the 12th hole with a birdie and won the match, 4 and 3, to advance to the round of 16.
Durant leads Champions event in Mississippi
BILOXI, Miss. - Joe Durant had three straight birdies in a back-nine burst and a shot 6-under 66 on Friday to take the first-round lead in the PGA Tour Champions' Rapiscan Systems Classic.
Durant birdied the par-4 11th and 12th and par-5 13th in the bogey-free round at breezy and rain-softened Fallen Oak. Because of the wet conditions, players were allowed to lift, clean and place their golf balls in the fairway.
''It just sets up nice to my eye,'' Durant said. ''It's a beautiful golf course and it's very challenging. The tee shots seem to set up well for me, but the greens are maybe as quick as I've ever seen them here. You really have to put the ball in the right spots. I played very nice today. With the wind swirling like it was, I'm really happy.''
He won the Chubb Classic last month in Naples, Florida, for his third victory on the 50-and-over tour.
''Done this long enough, Friday's just one day,'' Durant said. ''Especially in a three-day tournament, you've got to go out and shoot three good numbers. Fortunate to put one on the board, but I know I have to back it up with a couple of good days because you can get passed very quickly out here.''
Mark Calcavecchia was a stroke back. He won last month in Boca Raton, Florida
''It's probably my best round I've ever had here and it was a tough day to play,'' Calcavecchia said. ''The greens are just lightning fast. They're pretty slopey greens, so very difficult to putt.''
Steve Stricker was third at 68. He took the Tucson, Arizona, event three weeks ago for his first senior victory.
''Just getting it around and managing my game I think like I always do,'' Stricker said. ''You get in the wrong position here with the greens being so fast and you're going to be in trouble. I did that a couple times today.''
Billy Mayfair, Billy Andrade and David McKenzie shot 69. Jerry Kelly, the winner of the season-opening event in Hawaii, was at 70 with Wes Short Jr., Glen Day, Gene Sauers and Jesper Parnevik.
Bernhard Langer opened with a 71, and two-time defending champion Miguel Angel Jimenez had a 72.
Vijay Singh, coming off his first senior victory two weeks ago in Newport Beach, California, had a 73.