The rain was running in gray sheets outside the Holiday Inn in Flint, Mich., last Thursday, and Paul Azinger was in his room, nervously pacing the carpet. "I've been waiting nine months," he said. Now his first round back on the PGA Tour, at the Buick Open, had been delayed a day because of the weather.
Azinger thought about that early December day when Dr. Frank Jobe called him into his office in Inglewood, Calif., and said, "It's not good.... You have lymphoma." He thought about the call to his parents in Florida and how his mother had repeatedly said that she wanted to take the cancer from his body and put it in hers. He thought about his hair coming out in clumps and the awful retching after the chemotherapy treatments. Then he realized, What's another 24 hours?
Azinger chilled out and went to two movies—Clear and Present Danger and Speed. Two days later he missed the cut. But that didn't matter. He was back, and there was no cancer in his right shoulder. "The victory for me this week," he said, "was teeing off on that first hole."
That moment came on Friday, Aug. 5, at 12:49 p.m. It came at Warwick Hills Golf & Country Club on a day that felt like a football Saturday in early October. It came 247 days after Jobe had told him there was a 90% chance he would be cured, and minutes after he had passed a young boy and his dad en route to the 10th tee, where he would begin his round. The child had asked what cancer was, and the father had tried to explain.
The fans at the 10th hole were packed in rows down both sides of the fairway, eager to welcome home a man who had been fighting a killer disease. "This is like playing with Arnold Palmer," Ben Crenshaw said of the huge ovation that greeted his playing partner.
"From Bradenton, Florida," announcer Randy Burton intoned, "please welcome back to the game Paul Azinger." In the applause that followed, Azinger's eyes turned into water hazards. He tipped his straw hat and sucked air into his lungs, but gaining composure wasn't quite that simple. He hadn't been this nervous in the playoff with Greg Norman at last year's PGA Championship. This was different from staring down the Shark, and it was bigger than a major championship.
As Azinger stood over his golf ball, the golf world stood silent, holding its breath. On the putting green Lanny Wadkins and others stopped to take in the moment. Azinger took his trademark Harley Davidson biker grip, twisting his hands until they were at full throttle on the driver. When he swung, the ball bisected the fairway. "Way to go, Zing!" a man yelled.
"We all wanted to watch him tee off," said Wadkins, "to see if he was going to hit a bad one, so we could give him grief about it. He probably felt how amateurs do when they play in pro-ams. I'm sure he was glad to get that first shot over with."
After the round Azinger would confirm Wadkins's suspicion. "I didn't want to hit a heel hook into the crowd and kill somebody," he said.
Walking up that first fairway with Crenshaw and the third player in their group, Corey Pavin, Azinger was almost blushing. "Corey told me my eyes started sweating," Azinger would report.