THE MAN OF THE YEAR in American golf didn't win a tournament or crack the top 125 on the money list. Paul Azinger did something far more important: He saved the Ryder Cup. By overhauling an outdated selection process and coming up with a brilliant team-building strategy, Azinger, the captain of the U.S. side, accomplished something that had seemed impossible—he bridged the camaraderie gap and turned Team Me into Team US, which was the key to the first U.S. victory in almost a decade. 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, he doesn't get much loot.
The love has been awesome. 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 the Justin Timberlake Shriners Hospitals for Children Open, in Las Vegas. Azinger received the equivalent of a ticker-tape parade as he walked the fairways at TPC Summerlin. "There were a lot of 'Congratulations,'?" Azinger says, "but even more people simply said, 'Thank you.' I was blown away. That might be the ultimate compliment."
Azinger says that one elderly retired military man asked to shake his hand and said, voice cracking, "I want to thank you for restoring pride in American golf."
Even when Azinger strolled through the casinos—where a woman in a bikini at a blackjack table could probably go unnoticed unless she asked for a hit on 17—Azinger was stopped by well-wishers every few steps.
"You know how when you buy a new car, it's kind of a thrill?" Azinger says. "Winning the Ryder Cup has been like that. Except the new-car thing usually wears off after a few weeks. It's been six weeks, and the thrill of winning hasn't worn off. In Vegas it was as if we had won the Cup all over again. That feeling hasn't gone away at all. It has been fantastic."
Azinger has trouble 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's emotional pulse. On some nights even sleeping is difficult. "I'll be thinking about the Ryder Cup," he says. Azinger is riding the wave, a crest that he says is more powerful than anything he felt after winning the 1993 PGA Championship, his lone major title. He has Ryder Cup in his blood and it's running hot, so don't blame him if he can't—or won't—let go of his Valhalla moments.
A U.S. OPEN victory is said to be worth millions in off-course opportunities. Not so the Ryder Cup. Azinger says he hasn't received a single offer post-Valhalla—even his equipment deal is set to expire at year's end. Bad economy or not, the silence 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 Webb Father/Son Challenge and then partner with Rocco Mediate in the Merrill Lynch Shootout. Otherwise, his dance card is clean. Distressed, Azinger has been looking for new representation and will likely sign with one of the larger golf management agencies in the near future.
Azinger's next act is TBD—To Be Determined—on almost every front. The Champions tour is still a year away. (He won't turn 50 until January 2010.) Azinger would like to write a book about his Ryder Cup experiences—a how-to tome about leadership—but doesn't have a deal with a publisher. (The last winning U.S. captain, Ben Crenshaw in 1999, landed a lucrative deal for his autobiography, A Feel for the Game.)
A return to the PGA Tour is an option. Azinger can get into a handful of tournaments next year through a medical exemption for back and hand injuries, although a winning Ryder Cup captain would certainly get his pick of sponsors' exemptions. And Azinger, who has made only 22 starts in the last two years, is genuinely excited about playing. He's been working with instructor Jimmy Ballard, who has helped Mediate, another player with back problems, and Azinger is enthused about his progress. (If he can regain his scoring touch in '09, another mission impossible may fall into Azinger's lap: saving the faltering Champions tour.)