Azinger completes comeback

Golf, more so than other sports, lends itself to inspiring comebacks. Players who were once ill, injured or whose age alone would have meant the end of their careers, can make inspiring returns to the national spotlight.

Paul Azinger, the 1993 PGA Championship winner and a member of the 2000 U.S. Presidents Cup team, has not only come back from a life-threatening illness — he’s become a winner again.

Azinger, whose fellow golfers know him as Zinger — and he’s not afraid to throw one in here and there during conversation — was diagnosed with lymphoma (cancer) a few months after winning that PGA Championship. He captured his one and only major in a sudden-death playoff over Greg Norman, even while suspecting something was wrong. The shoulder pain he was feeling meant he could hardly pick up the trophy for winning the PGA Championship.

Life-changing diagnosis

That diagnosis changed the course of Azinger’s life. He went through chemotherapy and radiation, showed up for a press conference related to the 1994 PGA Championship with a bald head. It was as if Azinger were telling the world, “This is the way things are. There’s no point in hidinghe effects of the treatment.”

Later that year Azinger was named as an assistant captain for the U.S. side playing the first Presidents Cup. This competition was created so that international players (not eligible for the Ryder Cup) could compete in a team match-play event against a team of 12 U.S. players. Azinger’s presence was inspirational for the U.S. side, who went on to win that inaugural Presidents Cup.

But still Azinger was on the sidelines. He wasn’t playing the game, although his experience was of value to the U.S. team. He wanted to get back on the course. For so long Azinger had been considered one of golf’s top players. His compact swing was a model for golfers; he hit the ball low and with superb control. To watch Azinger was to watch a golfer who knew where the ball was going. It had only seemed right that he should win a major championship.

What next?

But what now? What of his life as a competitive golfer? Would he be able to compete on the PGA Tour again? Azinger didn’t know. He had trouble convincing himself golf was all that important when set against a diagnosis of cancer. How could it possibly matter to somebody whether he made a three-foot putt, even for a major? Azinger could still hit a golf ball beautifully, but his spirit for the game had diminished. Understandably.

But slowly his enthusiasm for the game returned. He began to get annoyed when he missed shots. That was a good sign. He was beginning to care again, even if he couldn’t see himself winning again, because he hit the ball poorly for a few years after getting back to golf in August 1994.

Finally Azinger saw some light on the course. He played well for a while in the 1997 Masters, which Tiger Woods took by 12 shots. He played well for a while in the 1998 PGA Championship — “the best I’ve played since I’ve come back,” he said then. Azinger was also relishing the battles on the course. “To play,” he had said, “you have to make sure the passion doesn’t go away.” But it had gone away. Now it was returning. He posted three top-10 finishes in 1998 and four in 1999.

A new attitude

And then, in the second tournament this year, Azinger won. This was at the Sony Open in Hawaii. He shot 19-under par 261, stomping the field the last day. There wasn’t a doubt about who would win that final round.

He was all the way back, but he had also changed forever. For one thing, his close friend Payne Stewart had died in a plane crash in October 1999. He had lost a cousin. And he could never get away completely from the fact he had been through treatment for cancer.

“How much joy do you really feel when you know life has so much heartache?” Azinger asked of nobody in particular after he won in Hawaii. “In life there are some really sad moments…it’s just difficult to feel the same amount of joy that I used to feel, like when I won the PGA Championship — that unencumbered joy.”

Azinger turned 40 last January, just before he won in Hawaii. You can say he’s come back from a hard and lonely place and you can say he will never feel the same on a golf course as he did before he was diagnosed with cancer. But today you can’t say that Azinger doesn’t care whether he hits a poor shot, or that he isn’t proud to represent his country and to lead with his clubs.

“Quite honestly I have not missed the game,” Azinger said a few months after learning he had cancer. “If my doctors told me next week I couldn’t play, I could accept that.”

He could probably still accept that. But it’s also interesting and illuminating that he has found his deep feeling for golf again.

So mark this down: Paul Azinger will one day captain the U.S. Ryder Cup team. He could also play on the next team, in 2001 at The Belfry in England. Azinger is back, and the golf world is the more absorbing for his presence.