The sun was bright, the morning air charged and fresh as Tom
Kite and Paul Azinger strode briskly down the hill off the first
tee at Augusta National, having just executed nervous opening
swings in the 61st Masters. Kite turned to Azinger and smiled.
"Not many shots in golf give you a feeling like that," he said.
Azinger chuckled in agreement.
It was a few more moments before the stark realization hit
Azinger like a pie in the face: He hadn't felt like this last
year, or the year before--not at the Masters, not even at the
U.S. Open. Not anywhere. Azinger, 37, was nervous. He was jumpy.
The butterflies were back. Good. "The last two years, I wasn't
nervous at all on the first tee," he said later that day. "If
you don't have butterflies, it's because you know you have no
chance. The last two years, I knew I didn't have a chance."
He was sure last week was going to be different, especially
after he shot a 69, the third-best score of a cold and windy
opening round that was made even more difficult by some sadistic
pin positions. He looked like the confident Azinger of
old--launching long, bulletlike drives and rolling putts that he
knew were going in long before they reached the hole. There was
the six-foot downhiller for par at the par-3 16th that he barely
touched before the ball lumbered into the cup. "You could read
the label on it as it rolled," said Azinger, who plucked the
ball out of the cup once it had fallen and then spread his arms
as if they were wings and pretended to soar off the green.
He looked like he might finally be able to give a definitive yes
to the question--Are you back?--that he had been hearing ever
since beating cancer and returning to the Tour a little more
than two years ago. "A lot of people won't consider me all the
way back until I've won a tournament," Azinger says.
So what's the answer? he was asked last Thursday. "I consider
myself all the way back," he said.
After the 69, who could argue? The round was his finest since
August 1994, when he rejoined the Tour after the eight months it
took him to fight off the cancer. Yes, Azinger had a 63 in the
second round of the Phoenix Open in January, but he admitted he
hadn't played his best and proved it on the weekend when he
faded to 26th. Still, there were positive signs: He was seventh
at Pebble Beach and a steady 14th at the Players Championship.
But, frankly, Azinger didn't expect much at Augusta National. He
has never liked the course and its crazy bounces, nasty pin
positions, ridiculously fast greens and need for right-to-left
shots. The National used to get to him, and despite the fact
that he had been here nine times previously, he was often beaten
before he showed up. "I had an attitude about this place,"
Azinger says. "I don't like one inch to mean the difference in
50 feet. That's crap, but that's the way it is here. I used to
be pissed off all the time going around here. I'd get hot on the
first green. I shot 67 one day in 1991 and was throwing stuff in
the locker room. Hubert Mizell of the St. Petersburg Times saw
me and said, 'This is why Americans can't win here.'"
Before last Thursday, Azinger had shot only three rounds under
70 in the Masters and never finished better than his 14th in
1989, when he made a futile rally on the weekend after a 75-75
start. But that history was all B.C.--Before Cancer.
The real nightmare began when Azinger was at his zenith, when he
beat Greg Norman in a playoff at Inverness to win the 1993 PGA
Championship. At the awards ceremony, Azinger's right shoulder
was so sore that he was barely able to lift the Wanamaker
Trophy. A few months later, he found out why: X-rays showed an
ominous dark spot. The doctors told him the spot was lymphoma.
The long months of treatment were debilitating and
life-altering, and when Azinger reappeared in public amid a
blaze of publicity, nothing was the same.
He played a full schedule in 1995 and '96, but finished among
the top 10 only twice and was 100th and 95th, respectively, on
the money list. His ability to score, to make a putt when he
absolutely had to make one, was gone. So was his patience, and
sometimes the frustration showed. Azinger angrily snapped his
putter over his knee midway through the first round of the
British Open last summer and tried to pass it off as an
accident. Last month at Bay Hill he broke a club too.
There were other distractions. Azinger has been swarmed over by
well-meaning fans. Everyone with a friend or a relative who had
suffered from cancer wanted to share the experience with him.
Their persistence wore down Azinger and affected his golf. "You
only have so much emotion to give," says Tom Lehman, one of
Azinger's friends on Tour. "Before he got sick, Paul was
probably the most passionate U.S. player. When he came back, he
wasn't playing well and he got frustrated. I told him, 'Paul,
you need to take six months and enjoy life.' He said, 'Why? I
just had two years off.' I said, 'You spent two years trying not
to die. You spent all your emotion trying to survive. Right now,
you're empty.' And he said, 'You know, that's just the way I
feel. I get to the golf course, and I've got nothing left to
give.' To play, you have to make sure the passion doesn't go
After Azinger complained about his performance at the Houston
Open last year, his wife, Toni, told him to stop whining. He
wasn't practicing enough to complain. That hurt, but she was
right, and he knew it. "I had wanted the results but didn't put
forth the effort," Azinger says. "I was going through the
motions. I wouldn't listen to my coach. I had fundamental flaws
in my swing and lacked the commitment to correct them."
When Azinger heard a TV interview during Masters week in which
Tom Watson discussed losing his focus, Azinger thought, That was
me. Last fall he recommitted himself to the game. As for the
Masters, he had already decided to approach the course as if it
were a puzzle and he needed to make the pieces fit. Azinger
arrived early for the tournament in 1995, last year and again
this year, sometimes playing with members and always absorbing
any information he could get from the club's caddies. "I've
gotten to know the course and enjoy it," he says. "It took me
longer than most people. I'm glad now that I can appreciate it.
Look at Lee Trevino--he still hates the course. My attitude has
Only the results haven't. Paired with Tiger Woods in the second
round, Azinger shot a 73 that could've been worse if he hadn't
holed a number of gamey second putts. Things got worse on
Saturday, when he flamed out, bogeying the first hole and
doubling the seventh en route to a 77 that made Sunday's 74
irrelevant. Azinger finished 28th, 23 shots behind Woods. "I hit
it great--and I'm five over," he said. "Augusta wins again."
A few months ago, after his agent asked him if he planned to
play the Senior tour, Azinger said no. "Three days later I
called back and said I would," Azinger says. "It was a pretty
deep question, and it made me realize I'm in this for the long
haul. I've tried to develop more of a long-term attitude toward
You've probably seen the TV commercial that includes the Azinger
highlight reel--the bunker shot to win the 1993 Memorial, the
PGA victory--and the hairless, postchemo Azinger. Narrating,
Azinger says in a steely voice, "This is my comeback. I will not
come up short."
Then the commercial ends. The comeback, however, continues.