Azinger Displaying His Iron Will

Here’s some bad news for the rest of the PGA Tour: Paul Azinger feels like, well, himself again.

That would be the Azinger who won 11 times between 1987 and 1993, who was in the top 10 on the money list six times in those seven years, who won the Tour Championship in 1992 and the PGA Championship in 1993, who played with a certain attitude that he was going to will that ball into the bottom of the hole.

“I’ve got my confidence back,” Azinger said. “I’m just hitting it better. It’s just a matter of coming

out here and getting off to a good start.”


He already has done that. Last weekend at Pebble Beach, Azinger finished tied for seventh. He tied for 26th at Phoenix, where he shot a second-round 63. The Buick Invitational is his third tournament of the year.

The 37-year-old from Florida missed nearly all of 1994 after undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatments when lymphoma was discovered in his shoulder. He returned in 1995, finished No. 100 on the money list and 95th last year. But this year, Azinger already is 19th with $72,600 in only two weeks.

“He looks good and he looks happy,” Davis Love III said. “There’s a little bounce in his step. He looks like the Paul of old when he was playing well. It would be great if he makes a big comeback this year.”

It has been more than two years since his return, but Azinger said there is one question he continues to get: How do you feel?


“I don’t know if it ever will go away,” he said. “People ask me, but they don’t really want to know. It’s a little monotonous, a little tedious. It’s not that I need to hear it, it’s that they need to ask. I understand.”

The golf questions are starting to become a lot more frequent now, and Azinger is relieved he can offer some answers he feels good about.

“I’ve turned the corner, I really have,” he said.


After his weeklong fan experience, flash bulbs going off and cameras clicking in his backswing at Pebble Beach, it’s probably a relief to know that the Tiger Woods phenomenon plays out the same no matter if the subject is on the California coast or in Bangna, Thailand.

Woods got to Thailand on Tuesday night and was given a reception befitting a head of state: His arrival was carried live on national television. The last two people who got that treatment were Queen Elizabeth and President Clinton, and their handicaps are a lot higher.

When Woods was forced to quit on the 13th hole in Wednesday’s Honda Asian Classic pro-am because of exhaustion, it probably was no surprise the whole event also was on television. That included Woods being airlifted from the Thai Country Club back to his hotel in Bangkok.

For his efforts, Woods is receiving an appearance fee reported to be $480,000. Woods had a first-round 70 Thursday and is four shots off the lead.


According to the Associated Press, Woods was followed by a gallery of about 200 and a media contingent of about 300.


Last week at Pebble Beach, Woods slipped into the Salon at the Lodge under the cover of darkness to get his hair cut in peace.

He failed. Within minutes, dozens of people were pressing their noses against the window to watch. After Woods left, one woman wanted to buy a lock of his hair.


He is 16 and a sophomore at Culver City High, but John Ray Leary is out there at Torrey Pines and playing in the Buick Invitational, rubbing shoulders with Ben Crenshaw and John Daly and Phil Mickelson and Mark O’Meara.

Leary, who qualified for his first PGA Tour event when he shot a 71 on the South course, said he has a goal for this weekend.

“Winning,” he said. “I’ve hit just as many balls as a lot of these guys, and I have just as much heart. Age is just a number.”


So is 81, which is what Leary shot Thursday in the first round.

Leary is coached by Eddie Merrins, the pro at Bel-Air, who said Leary lacks experience but not confidence.

“He’s a little bit bold, but he has the potential to be as good as any junior player in the country,” Merrins said.

Leary was born in the Philippines, but his parents moved to Culver City when he was an infant. Paul Leary is a real estate broker and Linda Leary is an accountant. John has no country club affiliation and works on his game at municipal courses, where he practices meditation standing over putts.

Leary crouches, inhales for four seconds, then exhales for four seconds. He expects to do well in his chosen field, regardless of his age.

“Hey, when you tee it up, the ball doesn’t know who you are,” Leary said. “Well, that’s not right. Arnie’s ball knows who he is.”


Before the PGA Tour launched its website on the Internet, it decided it had better acquire the rights to PGA as the address.

But PGA already was taken--by the Potato Growers of Alberta. The Tour forked over $35,000 for the rights, which is no small potatoes.


The winner of this year’s Needs-to-Win-to-Get-Into-the- Masters Davis Love III Memorial Award goes to Payne Stewart.

Just as Love had to do two years ago, Stewart has to win a tournament between now and the Masters to qualify to play Augusta. That’s because Stewart’s five-year exemption to play the Masters, by virtue of his 1991 U.S. Open title, has expired.

Love won at New Orleans the week before the 1995 Masters to get into the field, which turned out to be good timing, basically because he finished second that year to Crenshaw.

In any event, Love said Stewart’s path to Augusta may be harder than the asphalt on Magnolia Lane in front of the clubhouse. Stewart intends to play six of seven weeks before the Masters, beginning at Tucson.

“I don’t envy him,” Love said. “It’s no fun to try to get in that way. All the talk, the pressure will build. Every week, he’ll hear more and more talk. It’s just not a good situation to be in, to say the least.”


That golf, you know, you can really get hurt playing it.

Case in point: Ken Griffey Jr. was a late scratch from this week’s Diet Dr. Pepper National Pro-Am. Griffey probably was going to be the biggest star among the celebrities in the event in West Palm Beach, Fla., but the Seattle Mariners ordered Griffey not to play.

Why? Because there is a clause in Griffey’s contract that bars him from risking possible injury in non-baseball activities. Actually, it’s possible Griffey could get hurt on the golf course. Maybe he could fall out of a golf cart or snap his ankle stepping in a hole on the ninth green or fan on his swing and hit himself in the back and break something.

That could happen. Sure it could.


Last year, Bobby Nichols had both of his hips replaced with titanium. This year, Nichols is experimenting with a set of Wilson titanium irons.

Thus, Nichols has a chance to become the first fully titanium golfer on tour, hips and irons.

Brian Barnes has given up smoking and gained 20 pounds. He isn’t very happy about it.

“But I’d rather give up the game than go back to smoking,” he said. “I probably miss the cigarettes more than a bloody drink. I have no vices left now. I’ll be buying a cassock next week.”


Golf celebrities are more prevalent than oranges in Florida this week, where three celebrity golfing events are being held simultaneously. Besides the LPGA’s Pro-Am at West Palm Beach, there also was Dan Marino’s charity Celebrity Players Tour event at Ft. Lauderdale and the kickoff of the Celebrity Golf Assn. tour at Orlando, which featured Nigel Mansell, Ivan Lendl and others.

Hale Irwin won twice last year on the Senior PGA Tour, but he thinks he could have done much better.

“Two victories was not bad, but with seven seconds, I would have hoped I could have fallen off the turnip truck and landed on some soft grass.”