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He’s Back and Above Par Again : Azinger’s First Round an Emotional Success

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As the sun played hide and seek with the low, gray clouds that gathered over the Warwick Hills Golf and Country Club Friday afternoon, a Buick Open official named Randy Hutton turned to the crowd and nervously announced history.

“From Bradenton, Fla.,” said Hutton, a herd of cameras and boom mikes pointed his way, “please welcome back to the game . . . Paul Azinger.”

You would have thought it was thunder, not applause that mushroomed from that 10th tee box and echoed across the fairways and greens as Azinger stepped forward. Nine months he had been gone, six of them fighting cancer. Now he was back. Thinner. Older. Touched by fear of an early death.

Cancer can do that.

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Azinger, 34, tipped his hat as the applause and whistles kept washing over him in waves. He smirked. He nodded. He fought back tears. Then he planted a tee in the wet grass, placed a Titleist No. 2 atop it, tossed a few blades in the afternoon air, took a deep breath, tugged at his sleeve, pulled at his belt loop, gripped his club, took his stance, drew the Big Bertha back at exactly 12:51 and hoped.

“I didn’t want to hit a heel hook into the crowd and kill somebody,” he would

say later.

Let the record show that his first PGA Tour shot since last November plopped hard against the middle of the fairway, at which point Azinger playfully knocked his knees together in near collapse, clutched his heart and then exchanged a high-five with playing partner Corey Pavin.

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The comeback, nothing more than an afterthought during the dark hours of chemotherapy and radiation treatments, had begun.

Azinger shot an opening-round, four-over-par 76, which put him about a 3-wood and 2-iron away from the top of the leaderboard, 11 strokes behind Fred Funk. Not that it mattered. Seventy-six . . . 106, who cared?

“The greatest victory for me was just going out there today,” Azinger said.

This was only Azinger’s ninth round since his recovery, only his second hitting balls to yardages, only his first when it counted. It showed. Azinger couldn’t make a putt, couldn’t control the ball out of the rough, couldn’t feel . He hit trees. He chunked a few chips. He spent some time in beachfront property.

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“I’m just knocking the rust off,” he said.

There are worse fates--such as hearing Dr. Frank Jobe tell you a biopsy has revealed lymphoma, which is what happened to Azinger last December. Since then, golf has moved from the front seat, to the back seat, to the trunk.

“I’m just happy to be here,” said Azinger, who recorded 10 pars, six bogeys and two birdies. “I was in pretty bad shape about five months ago. I’ve made the turn now.”

Nobody knows exactly when the cancer cells began to assemble for their would-be death march. As long ago as 1987, the same year Azinger won his first PGA tournament, the same year he lost the British Open to Nick Faldo by bogeying the final two holes, there was a disturbing twinge in his right shoulder.

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Azinger told himself it was nothing. Probably too much Ping-Pong. That was it--he hadn’t warmed up before grabbing a paddle. Anyway, it sounded good.

White lies only work for so long. Four years later, the twinge had become a throbbing ache, enough so that surgery was required. With Azinger’s nervous blessings, Jobe not only repaired the shoulder, but also removed a tiny piece of bone for a biopsy.

Just to be on the safe side.

As Jobe had predicted, the biopsy revealed nothing. Azinger returned to the elegant golf wars, and by 1993 the Tour was his for the taking. His swing was sweet. His name was a regular on leaderboards. Life was good.

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At the Memorial, trailing by one and needing a tiny miracle to beat his good friend Payne Stewart, Azinger hooked his approach shot on No. 18 into a greenside bunker big enough to film “Beach Blanket Bingo.” He stomped into the sand, choked down on a wedge and then caressed the shot into the cup for a birdie.

Stewart three-putted for a bogey. Azinger had his first victory of 1993.

But it didn’t stop with the Memorial. Azinger won three tournaments in all, including the prized PGA Championship, his first major title. He recorded 10 top-three finishes, the most since Tom Watson’s season in 1980. He was the tour’s second-leading money winner.

And his shoulder hurt. Burned actually.

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In the 1993 U.S. Open, he could feel bumps on the bone. That wasn’t right, was it?

Azinger underwent a bone scan and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) test: Nothing.

When he won the PGA at Inverness last August, staring down Greg Norman in a dramatic playoff, he needed anti-inflammatory drugs and antibiotics to do it. The pain didn’t affect his swing, but it took all his might to lift the Wanamaker Trophy above his head.

Azinger thought he might have a muscle injury, possibly a chipped bone. Or maybe there was something wrong with a tendon.

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Jobe knew it wasn’t that simple. Never is. Midway through the PGA, he called Azinger and requested another biopsy. Azinger said not now and told no one of the news except his wife, Toni, and his caddy.

He played in five more tournaments, but when the pain worsened, Azinger agreed to a Nov. 30 biopsy. While flying from Palm Springs to Los Angeles for a Dec. 2 meeting with Jobe, Azinger pulled out his bone scan negatives and began peering at the black and milky images. With him was Stewart, who saw what Azinger saw: a dark mass at the shoulder blade.

According to Dave Kindred of Golf Digest, Stewart, whose father had died of cancer, looked at his friend and asked: “What’s the black?”

“I don’t know yet,” Azinger said.

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The initial diagnosis was promising. No malignancy was found. Then came the biopsy results and the Dec. 2 appointment.

“Hey, Dr. Jobe, how am I?” said Azinger, who had brought Toni and their two young children.

Jobe told him the truth and the truth was this: Azinger had lymphoma, the cancer--if you can believe it--with a heart. If caught in time, it was the most curable (90%) of the awful categories of the disease.

Azinger underwent more tests, this time to see if the black had spread. For three days, he and his family waited for the news. A cancer vigil, that’s what it was.

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At last came the results. The lymphoma was restricted to the right shoulder area.

It was cause for a strange joy. Azinger could live . . . but only if he began immediate chemotherapy treatments at Inglewood’s Centinela Hospital Medical Center, where Jobe practices. Radiation would come later.

“I’d throw up for two or three days after the chemo treatment and be gaggy for another seven or 10 days, and the next 20 were pretty normal,” Azinger said earlier this week at a news conference. “After that, radiation was like a walk in the park. There were no side-effects from radiation, except for a burn on my shoulder, like a real bad sunburn.

“But if you’ve got to do chemo, brother, you know you’re sick. I don’t know how else to say it.”

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The ordeal didn’t go unnoticed. Faldo, the man who beat him at the British Open in 1987, wrote a letter of encouragement. So did Seve Ballesteros, the guy who once accused Azinger of cheating, the guy who Azinger accused of showmanship. So did Jose Maria Olazabal . . . and thousands of other fans touched by Azinger’s bout.

Johnny Miller called and reminded Azinger that life is measured more by obstacles overcome than by goals achieved. Azinger has never forgotten the words. Gene Litler, who battled cancer more than 20 years ago, also phoned and offered encouragement.

Azinger was touched by the gestures. He realized how much he valued life and how much he enjoyed golf.

“I miss seeing that 7-iron leave on the perfect trajectory, loaded up with spin and stopping in there next to the hole,” he said. “I miss hitting those wedges knee-high to a grasshopper, whipping it in there pin-high. I miss that a lot. I miss the feeling of what it feels like to hit a shot dead on, when you don’t even hear the ball.”

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Azinger no longer spends part of his day feeling for cancerous lumps, and his straw-colored hair, which fell out in clumps during the chemotherapy, has begun to return. Even so, when he made a cameo appearance in the Memorial locker room earlier this year, fellow touring pros didn’t recognize him. He had lost hair, lost weight--about 20 pounds to 155--and lost contact with a game he played with a passion.

Friday wasn’t much different. While walking up the 10th fairway, Azinger saw fellow pro Tom Lehman on the adjoining fairway and waved hello. A day earlier, Lehman had left a nice note on Azinger’s locker. Now Azinger wanted to say thank you.

One problem. “He didn’t recognize me,” Azinger said.

Azinger finally took off his hat, tapped his short hair and waited. Lehman squinted and then smiled. It was “Zinger.”

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Lehman blew him a kiss.

He birdied No. 13, a 548-yard par-five. That’s when Pavin patted him on the back. “Congratulations on your first birdie of the year,” he said.

But then Azinger bogeyed the next two holes. After missing a five-footer for par on No. 15, he was steaming. He hit his drive on No. 16 and then turned to his caddy.

“You know, if you’re ever worried about me losing my competitive desire, don’t worry,” Azinger said. “I’m so mad right now I could spit nails.”

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This was good. A couple of months into chemotherapy, Azinger questioned whether anything, with the exception of his family, his religion and life itself, was worth fretting over. Now he knows.

Later in the round, as he waited on the eighth tee box, Azinger glanced at the electronic scoreboards, which keep a running total of everyone’s score.

“Well, I’m beating the crap out of four guys my first week back,” Azinger said, “and don’t think I won’t let them know about it.”

Azinger did better than that. He finished ahead of 12 other players and tied the defending Buick Open champion, Larry Mize.

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When the round was finished, Azinger signed every cap, card, program, golf ball, shirt, magazine, photograph and scrap of paper shoved in front of him. He called it “a privilege.”

Azinger was weary physically, tapped out emotionally. His back was sore, his legs aching. It had been a long day.

“But I’ll tell you what,” he said, “it beats the alternative.”


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