Soul Survivor To a chastened Paul Azinger, winning the Sony Open for his first victory in seven years was cause for reflection instead of celebration

January 24, 2000

There is a difference between the Paul Azinger of today and the
Azinger of 1993. The Azinger of today looks for meaning in
everything that happens. He survives cancer? God must be sending
him a message. His best golfing buddy and two other friends die
in a plane crash? He has been spared for a reason.

So when the 40-year-old Azinger won the Sony Open in Honolulu on
Sunday--his first Tour victory since the 1993 PGA Championship--he
barely resembled the carefree Zinger of old. He is no longer the
brash youth who traded glares with Seve Ballesteros in the Ryder
Cup...who called NBC's Johnny Miller "the biggest moron in the
booth," and then covered for it by claiming he had said "the
biggest Mormon in the booth" ... who joked that pro golf should
be more like pro wrestling, with taunting, tackling and body
slamming allowed.

No, the Azinger who drubbed the first full field of the year 2000
by a whopping seven strokes is a more serious fellow--an old soul
bobbing like a cork on the waves of destiny. "How much joy do you
really feel when you know that life has so many heartaches?" he
wondered afterward. "Unencumbered joy is seeing life through
rose-colored glasses. I don't see life that way anymore." With a
gentle smile he added, "But I'm still pretty happy."

Happy with his game, for sure. Azinger played flawless,
controlled golf in Sunday's final round at windy Waialae Country
Club. He had five birdies and no bogeys for a five-under-par 65
and a four-round total of 19-under 261. The runner-up, Stuart
Appleby, eagled the 72nd hole, but if he had aced the last two
holes, he still would have lost to Azinger by three.

Outwardly Azinger hasn't changed that much in seven years. He's
still as thin as a debit card. His full head of hair has
returned. He still grips the club with his right palm aimed
skyward. But he is different inside. Months of radiation
treatment and chemotherapy for lymphoma, in 1993 and '94,
impressed on him how fragile is the gift of life. More recently
the October deaths of his close friend, two-time U.S. Open champ
Payne Stewart, and his agents, Van Ardan and Robert Fraley, led
him to ponder some big issues: fate, purpose, survivor's guilt.
"It was a very sad off-season," he said. "That tragedy changed my
whole focus."

Something had to change if Azinger was going to stick with golf.
Since his PGA win, he had gone seven years and 96 tournaments
without tasting victory. Before the lymphoma, he was regarded as
perhaps the best and certainly the most intense American golfer.
But upon his return to competition, near the end of 1994, he was
something else: a feel-good story, for coming back; then a
feel-sorry-for-him story, as in, "That guy used to be really
good." He says, "I had no doubt that I was never going to win
again. I was playing that bad."

Last season, though, he began to see improvement in his
shotmaking. Encouraged, he decided to shake things up. He changed
irons and caddies, hired a new sports psychologist, found a new
ball and decided to putt cross-handed. Not so fast on that last
one. In December, Azinger chanced upon a curious putter in the
pro shop of a club near his home in Bradenton, Fla. It was a long
putter of the type used by Rocco Mediate and numerous Senior tour
players but built for someone shorter than the 6'2" Azinger. On a
whim, he rested the butt of the club on his belly and started
rolling balls around the shop. Everything he aimed at, he hit.

That very week, using the new putter and a conventional grip,
Azinger finished second while partnering Se Ri Pak in the
LPGA-cosponsored JCPenney Classic. The putter he used in Honolulu
was a copy, made by attaching an extended shaft to a Titleist
head that he owned. With the clone, Azinger ranked third in
putting, averaging a mere 27 strokes per round on Waialae's
grainy, bermuda-grass greens. A good, if streaky, putter in the
past, he said, "I've never made putts like I made this week."

Surprisingly, Azinger never looked lost or uncertain. He led by
three after a first-round 63. He shot 65 last Friday and jumped
five ahead of Appleby, Jim Furyk and John Huston. On Saturday, in
blustery squalls, he shot 68 and maintained that margin. Yes, he
putted brilliantly, but Azinger also deployed his rara avis, the
low fade. It's the perfect shot for the windy pool table that is
Waialae, and any beachboy knows that's why Azinger was runner-up
three times and had eight top 10 finishes when the tournament was
called the Hawaiian Open.

On Sunday, Azinger had complete command of his game. His
pursuers, on the other hand--well, they didn't pursue. Ernie Els
finished fifth but charged backward with an 8 on the par-4 3rd.
Jerry Kelly, another contender, vanished with a triple on number
1. The volatile Jesper Parnevik? He kept Azinger's gallery
entertained with a have-you-seen-the-Swede triple bogey on the
6th hole, followed by a birdie-par-eagle burst. Parnevik tied for
third with Huston.

Azinger didn't seem to notice. His lead was eight when he smacked
his drive on the final hole. His celebration was contained,
despite a heartfelt ovation from the spectators in the
grandstand. Azinger--who admitted that he had felt poorly all
day--doffed his visor; embraced his wife, Toni; and kissed his
daughters, Sarah, 14, and Josie, 10. He told a television
audience that he dedicated the win to Stewart's family, Ardan's
family, Fraley's family and all those diagnosed with cancer and
facing an uncertain future. Asked if he thought a higher power
was pulling his strings, Azinger adroitly dodged the question.
"The inspiration was there, but this whole divine intervention
thing is a little too much to ask," he said. "It was up to me
today."

Happily--well, almost happily--he was up to it. But it wasn't like
his 11 other Tour wins. Every time Azinger looked at a leader
board on Sunday, he saw Stuart Appleby's name. APPLEBY, whose
wife, Renay, was struck and killed by a London taxi in July 1998.
APPLEBY, who wore Payne Stewart's knickers and tam-o'-shanter at
the Tour Championship, a few days after the fatal plane crash.
APPLEBY, who like Azinger sometimes gets that vacant, haunted
look in his eyes.

The deaths, Azinger said, "really changed the way that I perceive
life." But now he had found his game again, and the kid in him
wanted to throw his visor and punch his fist into the sky. The
old soul, the mourner, said no, that won't do.

It was joy, encumbered. It was the best Azinger could do until
life made its meaning a little clearer.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT BECK

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)