Golf : Azinger Puts Money Worries Aside and Becomes a Winner

It didn’t hit him until about two days later.

“I was standing in the shower this morning, thinking about it,” Paul Azinger said by phone from Irving, Tex., where he is playing this weekend in the Byron Nelson tournament. “I made twice as much money in one tournament as I did in my first three years on the tour combined.”

Azinger rolled in a 25-foot eagle putt over a hump on the par-5, 524-yard 18th hole last Sunday at the Las Vegas Country Club and won the $1.3-million Panasonic Las Vegas Invitational, the richest tournament on the PGA Tour.

Winner’s share: $225,000.


Said Azinger: “I picked the right one to win, didn’t I?”

Sure did.

The previous two Panasonic winners, Greg Norman last year and Curtis Strange in 1985, went on to lead the Tour in earnings. And now Azinger leads the money list with earnings of $442,460.

“I never expected it to go quite this well,” he said.


This has been a break-through year for the fifth-year pro from Bradenton, Fla., who was 29th on the money list last year with earnings of $254,019, but didn’t win his first tournament until January at the Phoenix Open.

The victory made Azinger, 27, a little less anonymous.

“Until you win tournaments, people don’t notice,” he told the Arizona Republic.

Azinger said the difference between this year and last, when he finished second twice, is that he is less affected by the pressure.


“I think once a person gets over the financial worries, the only pressure you feel is to win the golf tournament, no matter how big the purse,” he said.

So, as he stood over his ball on the 18th green last Sunday, the worth of the putt never entered his mind, Azinger said.

“If I had been thinking that it was a $225,000 putt, I probably couldn’t have pulled my putter back,” he said. “I might have chunked it.”

Azinger didn’t worry too much about chunking any putts while growing up in Florida.


He worked at his father’s marina, scraping and painting boat bottoms, and all but gave up golf for a few years when he was a teen-ager.

“None of my friends played,” he said, adding that he didn’t break 70 until his second year at Brevard Junior College in Cocoa, Fla. “I wasn’t that good.”

He got better at Brevard, where Coach Jim Suttie introduced him to John Redman, a teaching pro based in Orlando.

“The golf coach had a video camera,” Azinger said. “I hit a lot of balls and saw myself on film a lot. I saw where I needed to improve and, fortunately, I improved pretty quick.”


He stuck with Redman, continued on to Florida State and earned his Tour card in 1982. He won $119,655 in his first three years on the tour and had his best year in 1986, although he never won.

He led late in the final round of the Shearson Lehman Brothers Andy Williams Open in San Diego, but double-bogeyed the 16th hole and wound up tied for third.

“I choked,” he later told Tom Friend of The Times.

Now, he said, he is better for the experience.


“I don’t forget about those things but I don’t make the same mistakes again,” he said. “I play a lot smarter.”

Azinger credits his rise to Redman, who told him before this season that he was good enough to lead the tour in earnings, and an unnamed struggling pro who motivated him, he said, by disparaging him.

“He kept reminding me that I wasn’t any good,” Azinger said of his rival, whom he declined to name. “He kept beating me, but I kept wanting to beat him, so I kept working. He could have made me want to quit, too, but he didn’t. He really helped motivate me.”

His victory last week would seem to call for a toast, but Azinger hasn’t had a drink in three years.


“I just can’t afford to feel a little different from one morning to the next,” he said. “So, why should I drink? I’m not against drinking--I did my share in college--but I’m taking things more seriously now. It doesn’t do me any good. I don’t need a few beers to have a good time.”

He needs to be especially sharp now, he said, because winning brings on added responsibility.

“You’re aware that people might be watching you,” he said.

That’s especially true if you’ve just won $225,000.


Jan Stephenson, feeling fortunate that she wasn’t hurt more seriously, is at home this weekend in Phoenix, recuperating from injuries she suffered in an automobile accident last weekend at Pinnellas Park, Fla.

Jay Burton, a spokesman for International Management Group, which represents Stephenson, said she is “catching up on her reading” and is in good spirits.

“She feels very, very fortunate to have gotten out alive,” Burton said. “She told me that she and her husband went back to the car the next day and were shocked at the amount of damage. The car was totaled.

“They still can’t figure out how she came out with such minor injuries.”


Stephenson, 35, was driving through Pinnellas Park, about six miles north of St. Petersburg, at 7:30 last Saturday night when another vehicle went through a red light and slammed into her 1987 Buick, police said.

According to Burton, the car that ran the light knocked Stephenson’s car into another lane of traffic, where it was hit on the other side.

Stephenson, who was tied for the lead after three rounds of the S&H; tournament at the time of the accident, suffered a sprained back, a dislocated rib and scalp cuts.

She withdrew from the United Virginia Bank tournament this weekend in Portsmouth, Va., and will not play next week in the Chrysler-Plymouth tournament at Middletown, N.J., Burton said.


He said she hopes to play in the LPGA championship tournament May 21-24 at Kings Island, Ohio.

Golf Notes

The United States Golf Assn. will conduct 36-hole local qualifying rounds at 69 sites May 14-19 for the 87th U.S. Open, which will be played June 18-21 at the Olympic Club in San Francisco. The largest qualifying field will be May 19 at Industry Hills, where 226 players are scheduled to compete for 19 openings. There will also be competition May 18 at Mission Hills in Rancho Mirage and Singing Hills in Santee. . . . Cal State Dominguez Hills and the Willow Tree Inn in Compton will host a tournament May 29 at Sierra La Verne CC to benefit the athletic scholarship fund at the university. The entry fee is $100 and includes participation in a hole-in-one contest that will be worth $10,000 to anyone who can ace the par-3 10th hole. For more information, call (213) 516-3893.

The TPC Stadium Course at PGA West has been dropped and replaced by the Arnold Palmer Course at the same location as the site of next year’s Bob Hope Chrysler tournament. Indian Wells will be the host course for the 1988 tournament, with Bermuda Dunes and La Quinta also being used. . . . Herb Brown won the championship flight with a 63 and Betty Vagasy the women’s A flight title with an 89 at the VIP tournament April 17 at Rio Hondo CC. . . . The American Lung Assn. of Riverside will sponsor a tournament June 1 at Bear Creek CC in Murietta, Calif., with proceeds going to support medical research, education and direct services for victims of childhood lung diseases. Information: (714) 682-LUNG or (714) 929-5300 or (619) 323-0344.


The Los Angeles Police-Celebrity tournament is scheduled for Saturday at Rancho Park. Among the celebrities expected are Sean Penn, Jon Voight, Bruce Weitz, Billy Barty, Robert Duvall and Jamie Farr. Adult tickets, which sell for $4, are available at all Los Angeles police stations and will be sold at the Rancho Park gate Saturday. Children 12 and under will be admitted free. . . . Donna Travis defeated two-time defending champion Millie Stanley, 314-315, for the Wilshire CC ladies’ club title. Betty Stickell won low net with 291.

Professional Jim Awtrey, a member of the PGA headquarters management staff the last 14 months, has been appointed deputy executive director of the PGA of America. . . . The Shore Cliffs Women’s Open, featuring the Women’s Professional Golf tour, is set for May 19-21 at Shore Cliffs GC in San Clemente. A pro-am--entry fee $50--will precede regular tournament play May 18 with a shotgun start at 9 a.m. Information: (714) 492-1177. . . . Dick Giddings of La Quinta and Ed Updegraff of Tucson combined to shoot a 214 and win the Giddings Cup, a senior men’s amateur team competition April 28-30 at La Quinta Hotel GC.