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 the 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.