THE MAN OF THEYEAR in American golf didn't win a tournament or crack the top 125 on the moneylist. Paul Azinger did something far more important: He saved the Ryder Cup. Byoverhauling an outdated selection process and coming up with a brilliantteam-building strategy, Azinger, the captain of the U.S. side, accomplishedsomething that had seemed impossible—he bridged the camaraderie gap and turnedTeam Me into Team US, which was the key to the first U.S. victory in almost adecade. Since that magical September week at Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville,we have also learned that while a winning U.S. captain gets a lot of love, hedoesn't get much loot.
This is an article from the Nov. 17, 2008 issue
The love has beenawesome. After the matches Azinger went into hibernation at home in Bradenton,Fla., and didn't resurface until almost a month later, when he played in theJustin Timberlake Shriners Hospitals for Children Open, in Las Vegas. Azingerreceived the equivalent of a ticker-tape parade as he walked the fairways atTPC Summerlin. "There were a lot of 'Congratulations,'?" Azinger says,"but even more people simply said, 'Thank you.' I was blown away. Thatmight be the ultimate compliment."
Azinger says thatone elderly retired military man asked to shake his hand and said, voicecracking, "I want to thank you for restoring pride in Americangolf."
Even when Azingerstrolled through the casinos—where a woman in a bikini at a blackjack tablecould probably go unnoticed unless she asked for a hit on 17—Azinger wasstopped by well-wishers every few steps.
"You know howwhen you buy a new car, it's kind of a thrill?" Azinger says. "Winningthe Ryder Cup has been like that. Except the new-car thing usually wears offafter a few weeks. It's been six weeks, and the thrill of winning hasn't wornoff. In Vegas it was as if we had won the Cup all over again. That feelinghasn't gone away at all. It has been fantastic."
Azinger hastrouble turning off the Ryder Cup in his mind—the thrill of the competition,the clutch shots, the passion, the agony of match play and the event'semotional pulse. On some nights even sleeping is difficult. "I'll bethinking about the Ryder Cup," he says. Azinger is riding the wave, a crestthat he says is more powerful than anything he felt after winning the 1993 PGAChampionship, his lone major title. He has Ryder Cup in his blood and it'srunning hot, so don't blame him if he can't—or won't—let go of his Valhallamoments.
A U.S. OPENvictory is said to be worth millions in off-course opportunities. Not so theRyder Cup. Azinger says he hasn't received a single offer post-Valhalla—evenhis equipment deal is set to expire at year's end. Bad economy or not, thesilence has been as deafening as it is surprising.
In December,Azinger will team with Aaron Stewart, Payne's 19-year-old son, in the Del WebbFather/Son Challenge and then partner with Rocco Mediate in the Merrill LynchShootout. Otherwise, his dance card is clean. Distressed, Azinger has beenlooking for new representation and will likely sign with one of the larger golfmanagement agencies in the near future.
Azinger's next actis TBD—To Be Determined—on almost every front. The Champions tour is still ayear away. (He won't turn 50 until January 2010.) Azinger would like to write abook about his Ryder Cup experiences—a how-to tome about leadership—but doesn'thave a deal with a publisher. (The last winning U.S. captain, Ben Crenshaw in1999, landed a lucrative deal for his autobiography, A Feel for the Game.)
A return to thePGA Tour is an option. Azinger can get into a handful of tournaments next yearthrough a medical exemption for back and hand injuries, although a winningRyder Cup captain would certainly get his pick of sponsors' exemptions. AndAzinger, who has made only 22 starts in the last two years, is genuinelyexcited about playing. He's been working with instructor Jimmy Ballard, who hashelped Mediate, another player with back problems, and Azinger is enthusedabout his progress. (If he can regain his scoring touch in '09, another missionimpossible may fall into Azinger's lap: saving the faltering Championstour.)
Zinger is alsointerested in breaking into course design, a business that has cratered in theU.S. but is booming overseas, and has had fruitless talks with a major designcompany.
A more likelycareer option is television. Zinger and Nick Faldo, the opposing captain in theRyder Cup, formed a dynamic team on ABC from 2004 to '06. When ABC got out ofthe golf business, Faldo landed at CBS and Golf Channel, while Azinger came upempty. He has signed on with Golf Channel (rejoining Faldo) for two events in'09—the first three days at the Accenture Match Play Championship and the firsttwo days of the Presidents Cup. Quick, opinionated and knowledgeable, Azingercould wind up doing more work for Golf Channel but is holding out for a leadanalyst's job with one of the over-the-air networks. Unfortunately, he says,"there's simply no room for me right now."
There should be.Reuniting the Ryder Cup captains in the buttoned-down CBS tower sounds likefun. Or: Can you imagine what a shock Azinger would be to Johnny Miller'ssystem at sycophantic NBC? As a captain, Zinger made his players better. As aTV analyst, he makes his partners better too.
A final option isa Ryder Cup encore. Almost to a man the U.S. players were campaigning for"Zinger in '10" during the postvictory celebration at Valhalla. (EvenTiger Woods says he regrets missing the chance to play for Azinger.) If Azingerdoes not return for the 2010 match, in Wales, he might consider '12, inChicago. PGA of America CEO Joe Steranka says his organization won't startsearching for a new captain until the first of the year. Asked about a possiblesecond turn for Zinger, Steranka says, "There's nothing in our policy thatprecludes a repeat captain. At the same time, there are a lot of deservingcandidates and not enough Ryder Cups for all of them."
In other words thePGA of America prefers to spread the wealth. And if offered the job again,would Azinger accept? "I wouldn't rule it out," he says.
FOR NOW, there'stime to chill. Azinger recently bought a new toy: a candy-apple-red Ford GT 40,and he had Jason Heffner, founder of Heffner Performance, juice it up becausethe 585-horsepower engine simply wasn't powerful enough. Azinger's twin-turboedmuscle car now has more than 850 horsepower. But what about the gas mileage?"Who cares?" Azinger says. "I can get to a gas station pretty damnfast."
Azinger'stwin-engined fishing boat sat unused all summer, but now he's back on boardpiling up frequent-floater miles stalking snook, redfish, grouper and anythingelse he can hook. Azinger's house sits on the Manatee River, and on a clear dayhe can see the sleek Sunshine Parkway Bridge and Tropicana Field in St.Petersburg from his second-floor office.
Who needs a steadygig? Life in Zingerworld is pretty sweet.
Fresh news andviews from SI and Golf Magazine writers at GOLF.com/presstent.