LOUISVILLE--One of Paul Azinger's most endearing qualities is his little-boy love of competition, whatever the game or sport. Fishing and poker are his favorite pastimes away from golf, but Azinger can talk with Mickelsonian authority on any major sport, and still revels in getting in a batting cage or taking on neighborhood teenagers in games of H-O-R-S-E.
Early in his life on tour, Azinger was a devotee of paintball, seeking out ersatz battlegrounds in various tour towns. On Wednesday at the Ryder Cup he did a hilarious five-minute riff on foosball, a sport which he became obsessed with as a teenager and picked up again in recent years after asking his old caddie Ted Scott, who now carries for Bubba Watson and is a former foosball tournament champion, to teach him the finer points of the game.
Upon arriving in Louisville on Saturday, Azinger learned of an informally thrown-together foosball get-together outside of town and simply had to go. He descriptions of the experience brought out his eye for telling detail, calling the place "a crackhouse for foosball players. . . . I swear to god there wasn't a stick of furniture in this house. . . . It was a little bit like 'Silence of the Lambs' walking in the basement going down there to play foosball [with] this eerie light and concrete-block walls."
On Thursday, Azinger was able to reference perhaps his favorite sport, boxing, after being asked his reaction to having former three-time heavyweight champion Muhammed Ali, a native of Louisville, brought out to the 10th tee at Valhalla to pose for photos with both teams.
Azinger grew up watching the fights with his father, Ralph, an aficionado of the sport. Paul believes one of the seminal moments in his development as a golfer occurred when he was a fledgling junior-college player and an old Florida boxing trainer taught him a breathing technique that helped him deal with the pressure of tournament golf.
Azinger naturally is a huge fan of Ali, whom he visited last year at the champ's home in the Louisville area. After the U.S. team arrived on Monday, Azinger promptly took them to the Muhammed Ali Center, where they perused memorabilia and watched video of Ali's career.
Ali's presence at Valhalla, like all his public appearances, was both inspirational and sad. The former champion can barely speak because of the effects of Parkinson's Disease. When European captain Nick Faldo, who counts Ali--along with Bjorn Borg and Jack Nicklaus--among his greatest sporting heroes, attempted to relate the scene, he got too emotional to go into detail. "Well, it was just an incredible moment, as you can tell," he said, pausing to wipe his eyes. "I thought it was really special, really was."
Azinger, too, was touched. "Yeah, it was great to see him," he said. "It's hard to see him in the kind of shape he appears to be in. I'm quite sure that he could hear what I was telling him. I saw his eyes open up, and I could see his eyes moving.
"He was very conscious of what I was telling him. . . . I remember watching him when he fought Ken Norton, and Ken Norton broke his jaw: I want to say it was the third round. I told him this: 'I'll never forget that as long as I live, when he broke your jaw in the first or third round, and I've loved boxing my whole life,' and his eyes opened up, and he was really listening. I told him that was an inspiration to me, to never quit no matter what it was that I was doing. It was a great privilege to be able to sit next to a great man."
*--Jaime Diaz *