Child's Play

That's what golf is like for Paul Azinger, who's 30 going on 15
March 12, 1990

Wouldn't it be fun if there were no holds barred in golf, no rules. You just couldn't touch the guy while he's hitting. The guy hits a good shot and you say, 'You are so lucky. That stunk! You're terrible!' "

The man they call Zinger is on the edge of his chair, his eyes brimming with mischief. There's no mistaking what has happened: A 15-year-old has taken over his body.

"Or what if you could scream, 'Miss it!' on his backswing?

"Or"—Zinger is really excited now—"like hockey! Guy makes a 10-foot putt, you walk up and forearm him. Guy's got a four-footer, and as soon as he hits it, bam!" Zinger throws a bony elbow at an imaginary chin. You have visions of Nick Faldo lying flat on his back on the 18th green at Muirfield, coldcocked by the skinny American with the bangs. "Wouldn't that be great?"

Paul Azinger is delivering this monologue in the card room at the River Wilderness Country Club, near Bradenton, Fla. He looks up at the TV mounted on the wall and watches as a couple of fighters climb into a ring, waltzing in their robes. "I wish golfers were more like boxers," says Azinger. "I wish that Faldo or Seve [Ballesteros] or Curtis [Strange] would say, 'I'm the best golfer in the world, and I'm going to kick their butts anytime I tee it up!' See, I don't believe I'm the best player in the world, and that's why I can't say it, but I know that some of these guys do believe they are. But they still can't say it."

Why not?

"Because in golf you lose," says Azinger. "You lose all the time. If I've got a three-shot lead going into the last day, I'll say something like, 'Well, I'm afforded a few more mistakes than the other guy.' Or, 'I have to do better today than yesterday.' I have to say that, because if I say I'm going to win, I'm sticking myself in a position to be blistered. But a fighter like Tyson...."

The 15-year-old in Azinger gets excited again. "Did you watch that fight on TV?" he says. "It was great. It's as excited as I've been in 10 years watching anything. Before the fight, they're interviewing Tyson, and he's saying, 'I refuse to be beat, I'm invincible.' I don't respect Tyson too much otherwise, but I'm thinking, it's great that he's so committed to how good he thinks he is. But I was pushing so hard for Buster Douglas. I wanted Tyson to get beat after hearing all that."

The smile breaks out again. "And he got drummed!"

Azinger wraps the last word in Christmas tissue. He closes his eyes and cackles with glee. "I love boxing," he says. "I'm a fight fanatic."

Somehow you know, without asking, that he likes professional wrestling, too—guys with bullet heads and black tights trading forearm shivers with goldilocked giants in leopard-skin trunks. A couple of hours with Azinger will convince you that he belongs on his elbows on the floor in front of a TV, not on the screen himself, lining up putts worth $250,000.

A memory: The practice range at La Costa in Carlsbad, Calif., after the third round of the 1990 Tournament of Champions. Azinger has a two-stroke lead over second-place Ian Baker-Finch, and as the sun drops behind the hills, the Zinger is horsing around with fellow pro Mark McCumber in a practice bunker—lobbing shots to the pin, trading taunts and boasts, joking with spectators. A few yards away Baker-Finch is frowning over his setup—moving his hands just so, adjusting his knuckles ever so slightly, trying to get comfortable.

That's it. Just an impression.

A more recent memory: The 1st tee at River Wilderness. Azinger is posing for photographs at a company golf outing. Between pictures he stages chip-offs with the players, lofting soft-as-oatmeal lob shots to the adjoining putting green. "All right, guys," he tells the last group, "closest to the pin with a driver."

The club pro steps up, takes out his driver and putts the ball hard—too hard—through the long grass and across the green.

Azinger clucks his tongue. He drops a ball, steps on it gently and then sweeps his driver at the ball, intentionally topping it. The ball hops out of the turf with the trajectory of a chip, clears the long grass and trickles onto the green. Azinger's grin says, Wouldn't it be great if they had a tournament in which you had to use your putter off the tee, chip with your driver and hit sand shots with a five-iron?

No, this can't be the PGA Tour's leading money-winner. He's too thin, too tall, too much like the kid in 10th grade biology lab who played desk hockey with frog legs and fish eyes. Put the question to him directly—How are you different from your average, grind-it-out touring pro?—and the 6'2", 170-pound Azinger answers without hesitation: "I'm less mature."

His eyes get big. "I'm serious," he says. "I'm putting a basketball goal up in my front yard, and it's going be a nine-foot goal because I want to dunk. I don't know why I'm that way, I just am. My family comes over, and before you know it, my two older brothers and I are throwing water balloons at each other. I play Wiffle Ball with those hollow rubber balls, because they curve a mile!"

By now the 15-year-old in Azinger's interrogator is coming out, too. Talk about awesome, Paul, did you ever play baseball with a Super Ball—one of those hyperelastic, handball-sized spheres that sails about 500 feet off a Little League bat? Azinger stiffens and regards his interrogator with pity. "I'm not that immature," he says.

All right, then. Let it be known that Azinger's real age is 2 X 15, and that he's married—with children. His wife, Toni, and daughters, Sarah Jean, 4, and Josie, 10 months, travel with him on the Tour. That's why he spends more time juggling coloring books than playing cards with the guys. He doesn't drink, attends the Tour's weekly Bible study sessions and is one of the few top players whose father serves as manager.

Still, with his good looks and unbridled enthusiasm, Azinger seems to cultivate a wayward-choirboy image. "He loves it when people describe him as boyish," says fellow pro Dewey Arnette, his closest friend on the Tour. "It killed him to turn 30."

Azinger passed that milestone on Jan. 6, the day before he won the Tournament of Champions. He walked onto the 18th green on national TV and the gallery met him with an affectionate chorus of Happy Birthday to You, which caused him to blush and yank his visor down over his eyes.

Azinger's stock answer when asked to explain his youthful fervor is that he came late to tournament golf. While other pros-to-be honed their competitive golf skills through high school, Azinger fired fastballs past Little League batters and painted boat bottoms at his dad's marina in Sarasota, Fla. "I didn't break 70 till I was 20," he says. "So I'm not even close to burning out."

Azinger turned pro in 1981 after three years of college golf at Brevard Community College in Cocoa, Fla., and Florida State. He earned his Tour card that year, but lost it after the '82 season and spent the next year on the mini-tours. Azinger qualified again in '83 but finished 144th on the '84 money list. So he went to the Qualifying Tournament in the fall of '84 in La Quinta, Calif., to try to improve his position, and won the event. He has been on the Tour ever since, but most of his $3 million in earnings has come since 1987, when he won three tournaments and was named PGA Player of the Year. He made his first run at a major championship that same year, leading the British Open in the final round at Muirfield, only to hand the championship to Faldo with bogeys on the final two holes. "Until I won at Bay Hill the next year, I wouldn't admit how devastated I was by that," says Azinger.

Azinger might have made his splash sooner if he hadn't lost his grip—literally. In high school and college he played with his right hand turned under the club in what is called a strong position. Neither his college coaches nor his teaching pro, John Redman of Orlando, Fla., had asked him to change, so Azinger hit the Tour for the first time unaware that his hand action was unorthodox and that it forced him to rotate his body more than most players through impact with the ball. "I never even knew it was a strong grip until my fourth tournament," he says. "Guys on the Tour were telling me, 'You'll never be any good till you change your grip.' So I started trying to 'weaken' it [by moving the right hand back on top] a little bit, and before I knew it, I couldn't break an egg."

After he lost his card Azinger went back to Redman and confessed that he was self-conscious about his grip and had been trying to weaken it. Says Azinger, "John said, 'If you ever change your grip, don't ever come see me again.' " Zinger went back to his old grip. "It was that simple. I worked with him for 10 minutes and hit the ball better than I had anytime that year."

Hitting a golf ball The Azinger Way—to borrow the title of his instructional video—is a coin with two sides. "I'm not the greatest high-ball hitter in the world," he says. "I can't throw it straight up in the air with a three-iron the way Andy Bean can. But I can probably hit a nine-iron lower than he can."

That shotmaking profile makes Azinger a good wind player and a fine links-style golfer, but costs him strokes on courses demanding high shots to tightly guarded greens. He recently played a round at the Jack Nicklaus-de-signed Renegade course at the Desert Mountain Golf Club, in Scottsdale, Ariz. Azinger says he played "pretty well," though he shot an 82. "That course was unplayable," he says with a laugh.

Renegade is about the only course Azinger has found unplayable of late. He closed the 1989 season with a second-place finish and a tie for third, opened '90 with the Tournament of Champions win, was runner-up to David Ishii at the Hawaiian Open and finished second to Greg Norman in a four-way sudden-death playoff at Doral last week. "If he comes anymore into his own," says defending British Open champ Mark Calcavecchia, "nobody else is going to win a tournament."

As Azinger sees it, his good play of late is a carryover from his heroics at the Ryder Cup, played last September at the Belfry in England. His one-up victory over the usually indomitable Ballesteros on the final day helped the U.S. salvage a 14-14 tie.

Azinger had been equally brilliant the day before, when he teamed with Chip Beck to defeat Faldo and Ian Woosnam. In what some observers called the best four-ball match in Ryder Cup history, Beck and Azinger won 2 and 1, outscoring the Europeans 11 birdies to nine. "That's the match I'm as proud of as the Seve match," says Azinger. "They'd never been beaten, they're great players, and I'd lost the British Open to Faldo. So it was like revenge. The 14th hole, we're one-up, and Faldo makes a 40-foot bomb. The crowd goes wild, [European captain] Tony Jacklin's in a cart going crazy, the wives of the European players are going nuts. Boom! I drain on top of Faldo, about a 25-or 30-footer to stay one-up. I look behind me, and Lanny Wadkins and Tom Watson are high-fiving each other. It's probably the greatest experience of my career."

If anything symbolizes Azinger's conviction that he has arrived, it's the house he's building near Bradenton. The gables of the 4,800-square-foot structure provide an unreachable target for golfers on the River Wilderness practice range, and Azinger has built a tee in his backyard, from which he will hit over a lake and onto the practice range.

Another feature of his nifty home on the range is a screened-in back porch carpeted with a sand-and-fiber putting surface, complete with holes. Azinger rolls and top-dresses the surface himself. "It's awesome," he says, and he warns all comers, "There's going to be some money changing hands here." When he isn't trolling for suckers in the neighborhood, he'll slip down to the nearby Manatee River and fish for snook. "I want to be here forever," he says.

The only question is whether a 15-year-old in a 30-year-old's body can win a major championship under the existing rules, or whether Azinger will insist that the Masters be played his way. "I love golf the way it is," he was heard to say recently, "but wouldn't it be great to play a tournament with a bunch of friends, shoulder pads on...."

Marquis of Zingerberry rules?

PHOTOJACQUELINE DUVOISINThe Zinger shows his daughter Sarah Jean that you are never too old for wheelies. PHOTOJACQUELINE DUVOISINAzinger was devastated after a bogey 5 on the last hole cost him the '87 British Open. PHOTOJACQUELINE DUVOISINJosie is happy to sit back and watch Dad play with his new toy, an artificial putting green.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)