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 set 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 the. 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 away."