March 17, 2009

Captain America

How Paul Azinger survived cancer and the loss of Payne Stewart to find a different kind of success

Editor's note: Like most players, NBC Sports reporter Jimmy Roberts has endured sudden incompetence on the golf course. In his new book, some of the most successful people to play the game--Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Greg Norman, Johnny Miller and Phil Mickelson, among others--tell Roberts how they survived panic and frustration to find success again. In this chapter, Paul Azinger overcomes a cancer diagnosis, a long slump and the death of his close friend Payne Stewart before winning again and captaining the victorious 2008 U.S. Ryder Cup team.


It's a sunny late-September morning in Bradenton, Fla., and I'm standing in line at Starbucks with Captain America. I go for a decaf, but Paul Azinger prefers something stronger. As if he needs it. He's buzzing anyway.

"Way to go!" an older woman yells at Azinger a few minutes later from the window of a weathered SUV. "Congratulations!"

Much to Azinger's delight and surprise, the scene is repeated a handful more times as we sit sipping our coffee at an outdoor table. "There's a lot going on that's not good," he says. "I think it's kind of a scary time, and this was uplifting for a lot of people."

Eight days earlier, using a blueprint for team-building that might wow the people at Harvard Business School, Azinger engineered a win for the United States at the Ryder Cup in Louisville. It had been nearly a decade since the last United States win, and America's fortunes in the competition had become something of an obsession in the insular world of golf. Azinger could be doing "The Tonight Show" with Jay Leno or taping a guest spot with Ellen DeGeneres or Jimmy Kimmel, but he has turned it all down to come back home and just let it sink in.

"I feel like I spent the last two years slowly pulling back the string of a bow," he says, "and I finally let it go."

The night before, we walked out his back door and onto the dock, which leads 382 feet into Tampa Bay. The sky was clear and the night was silent, except for small waves lapping hypnotically against the pylons. Azinger looked west toward the Gulf of Mexico and sighed. "People always ask me why in the world I would want to live in Bradenton; there's nothing here. 'You're right,' I tell them. 'You don't want to come here.' "

He laughs, and we head back to the house. Many in American golf would have you believe that the Louisville matches were a matter of life and death. Azinger is a vicious competitor, and he desperately wanted to win the Ryder Cup, but it was hardly a life-and-death affair. Who in golf could possibly know any better?

There was a time not too long before when Azinger's celebrity wasn't about helping others do their best, or commenting about it on TV, but rather doing it himself.

In 1987, he was the player of the year. It was the start of a seven-year stretch during which Azinger won 11 tournaments on the PGA Tour and finished every year except one among the top 10 on the money list. (The year he didn't, he finished 11th.) "If I wasn't the best player in the world, I was certainly the hottest," he says.

He might have also been the biggest surprise.

"I couldn't break 80 two days in a row my senior year in high school," he says. "I suppose I probably could, but if I did, I'd run home and tell someone."

The son of an Air Force navigator who flew C-141s in Korea and Vietnam, Azinger learned to play golf mostly on military bases. His earliest memory of the game is riding atop the pullcart his dad, Ralph, dragged around the course at Homestead Air Force Base in South Florida when Paul was 3 years old.

"My dad was a single-digit handicap," he says, "but my mom was better than him. She got down to like a 4- or 5-handicap."

Aside from winning several state and regional tournaments, Jean Azinger's claim to fame was playing--with great distinction--in an exhibition with Hall of Famer Patty Berg in 1959. Jean chipped in three times during the round, a round she played while seven months pregnant--with Paul.

Initially, though, Paul was mostly an indifferent high school player. "None of my friends played golf," he says. "I just wasn't into it." Upon graduating from Sarasota High School in the spring of 1978, he didn't get a single scholarship offer and ended up at Brevard Community College. "I knew I wasn't any good," he says. "Sometimes you think you're good, and you're not. I knew I wasn't that good."

But things started to change in the summer of 1979, when Azinger went away from home for the first time and took a job as a counselor at Arnold Palmer's Golf Academy at Bay Hill in Orlando. "We were more like baby sitters," he says. "We'd pick these campers up, and they'd stay two weeks, and then we'd take 'em back to the airport and pick up a whole new batch. I was kind of a gofer for the pros. We took care of the kids after the day was over--volleyball, swimming, that type of thing."

The job paid $80 a week plus a room, but the side benefit was that whenever he could take the time, Azinger could use the facilities. That summer, he says he "lived and breathed the game."

"Bay Hill's such a hard golf course," he says. "All of a sudden, I went back to college, and I'm playing these courses, and I murdered 'em."

Also, for the first time in his life, Azinger got serious instruction. Jim Suttie, his coach at Brevard, was on the Palmer Academy staff. In addition to working with Azinger, Suttie introduced him to a Titusville pro named John Redman, who would be instrumental in his development.

Azinger had arrived at Bay Hill as what he called "the third man on Brevard's C team," but soon after that summer, he was the school's No. 1 player. "It was one of those things where my game changed so much for the better, so fast," he says, "that I didn't realize what was happening."

After one more year at Brevard, Azinger moved on to Florida State, where he started to have his first big-time competitive success. But Tallahassee was just a stop, too. "I wasn't going to get any better there," he says, "and academically, I was totally uninterested."

In the fall of 1981, after one year at Florida State, Azinger tried professional golf. Less than two years after breaking 70 for the first time, he qualified for the PGA Tour at Waterwood National in Texas. His father convinced nine friends to kick in $3,000 each, and Azinger was staked to a start. He didn't start with a lot of confidence.

"I didn't see myself being able to compete with those guys," he says of the players on tour. "I didn't think I was capable--mentally or anything. . . . No self-confidence. Self-conscious about my swing. Self-conscious about my grip."

Azinger's grip. It was the neon sign that immediately attracted attention when people first saw him play. His left hand was rotated dramatically over the top of the club in an exceptionally strong position. No one else at this level held the club in a remotely similar fashion. Azinger's grip was like Bob Dylan's voice--unusual, even eccentric--but it had served him well.

"I had a couple of players tell me, 'You'll never be any good with that grip. You've got to change it.' They were wrong, but I didn't know they were wrong."

That first year on tour, Azinger earned $10,000 in 21 events. "My first four years as a pro," he says, "I had to file taxes, but I never had to pay anything. I just kept losing money."

Then came an odd interlude that would change his career. Azinger struck up a friendship with a man named Mac McKee, who had known Azinger's wife since she was a little girl. "He told me," Azinger recalls, " 'I don't know one thing about golf, but I know I can make you a better golfer.' "

Azinger had reason to be doubtful. McKee was a retired boxing trainer who over the years had also earned a living as a carnival fighter. For a fee, you could get in the ring with him and see how tough you were. He would take on all comers. Despite being in his mid-60s, McKee was a physical specimen who paid great attention to working out, but his hobby was studying the mind and its part in performance. "He used to study East German philosophy," Azinger says. "He read books about concentration and hypnosis and progressive relaxation, and that type of thing. And he asked me if I would ever consider going deeper mentally into the game and taking a different approach."

At McKee's suggestion, Azinger began to engage in heavy visualization. After playing a practice round he would sit up in bed at night and imagine, in sequence, every shot he would need to play, always hitting the center of the green. And he did breathing exercises to control his heart rate.

"Breathe in for four counts, and then exhale in a four count, too," he says. "That happened my third year on tour. I started to take on a different outlook. Kind of like Tiger did when he was in third grade."

Azinger's career soon took off. For the first time as a professional, he earned enough money to retain his PGA Tour playing privileges, and soon he found himself on a run that culminated with a playoff victory over Greg Norman at the 1993 PGA Championship.

Once, standing on the putting green at Westchester Country Club during that period, Azinger looked up and laughed after pouring in several consecutive 10-footers and said to me, "I'm so good, I don't know how I ever miss one of these things!"

Azinger was a blend of color, candor, confidence and talent, but "it was over in an instant," he says. "Just like that. I went from the most confident player, the hottest player, to just trying to stay alive."

Plagued by almost constant shoulder pain, which had started in 1987, Azinger finally submitted to a biopsy in the fall of 1993. The test revealed cancer: non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

"They told me it was pretty much a 90-percent chance of a complete cure," he says, "and I felt that you've got a 10-percent chance of getting a flat tire on the way home, and I figured that you never get a flat, so I'm probably going to be fine." More than 1.2 million Americans are diagnosed every year with some form of cancer. The fortunate ones who find themselves with some type of viable and effective treatment will tell you, though, that as grateful as they are, the treatment is often worse than anything they could have imagined. Azinger fell squarely in that category. But the day of his first treatment, in early December 1993, he had no idea what all the foreboding was about.

"This is a cakewalk," he told his friend Payne Stewart, who had called that day. "Chemo was easy. It was a snap." The recollection is from Azinger's 1995 autobiography, Zinger. Around midnight that night, he woke up and got sick for the first time. Every 15 minutes for the next nine hours, his body convulsed.

Azinger had six months of chemotherapy in a hospital 2,500 miles from his home. "I always flew to L.A. to do them because I didn't want my kids to see me sick," he says.

The routine was always the same. "I'd fly out there to do the chemo, stay sick for two or three days, and then fly home," he says. "It was a good, solid 10 days before I could even hear good again."

By the end of May 1994, he was done with the chemo and radiation. A little more than two months later he made the first of four "ceremonial" appearances in PGA Tour events. He was hopeful and alive but weak and starting from scratch.

"I didn't have the same mental edge," he says. Before, his wife, Toni, had always thought he looked as if he was in a trance on the golf course. He seemed that consumed. But now things felt different. "I didn't have that same 'step on your head and rip your heart out' edge. I lost that."

And it wasn't the only change.

"I remember at Hilton Head," he says, "I played 18 holes, slept for three hours after I was done, got up and ate dinner, and then slept until 9 o'clock the next morning. My body just needed rest."

Azinger says it took him a year and a half to feel like he was getting back to normal, but on top of that he signed a lucrative equipment contract.

"When I changed equipment, it had a huge effect on my game," he says. "My swing changed. My swing was just never the same."

He knocked around the tour for the next half-dozen years. And then on Oct. 25, 1999, the world collapsed around him again. His good friend Payne Stewart and managers and friends Van Arden and Robert Fraley--if anything had ever happened to Azinger and his wife, they had made arrangements for their children to be left with the Fraleys--were killed when the small private plane in which they were flying crashed on the way from Orlando to Dallas.

"I'll never forget that day," says Azinger. He had been at Disney World with his family and had turned off his cell phone. Driving back across the state late in the afternoon, he turned it on, and the device started vibrating: "Voicemail after voicemail after voicemail," he says.

A moment later, the phone rang. It was his brother, who told him that Stewart's plane had crashed, but he didn't know more. Azinger pulled over and called his parents. Because they hadn't been able to reach him all day, they thought perhaps he might have been on the plane.

"My mom was bawling her head off," he says as we sit outside the Starbucks. "When my dad said that they're all dead, I literally fell to the ground right there, on my knees with my wife."

It was a consuming tragedy for the sport and beyond, and Azinger was at the middle of the aftermath. He delivered a moving eulogy four days later, and then golf seemed like the furthest thing from anybody's mind.

After more than two months of grieving and questioning, Azinger went to Hawaii to start his PGA Tour season and to try to get on with his life. In the off-season, he'd switched back to the type of irons with which he'd had so much success, and in the season's first full-field event, he opened with rounds of 63 and 65 before winning by seven strokes. "Confidence is something that when you have it, you never think you're going to lose it, and when you lose it, you never think you're going to get it back," he says. "The best thing you can do in your 'self-talk' is to remind yourself what you've done in the past. You've done this before."

It was an extraordinary story, but Azinger thought that all those who wanted to make it exclusively about his long recovery from cancer missed the point. "Hawaii was great for a lot of people--a lot of people who were close to Payne and Van and Robert. It meant a lot to all of them. It was a hard time for all of us. It was a part of the healing process. It was a feel-good time when there wasn't a lot of feel-good stuff. It went beyond me."

We're back at Azinger's house now, talking in a secret room hidden behind a wall where he keeps his golf trophies and memorabilia. It's not part of the normal house tour. Entry is by invitation only. You'd never find it otherwise.

"Bubba Watson came to visit one time when I wasn't here," Azinger says, "and he wanted to know where all my trophies were. He couldn't figure it out."

There is a flatscreen TV and comfortable, overstuffed chairs. Azinger says he comes in here often and thinks. "I'm a little more complex than people give me credit for," he says. "I think that sometimes people think I'm just a Southern dumb ass in some respects."

The week before at the Ryder Cup he had proved that to be a foolish assumption. He cleverly grouped his 12 players into three teams that practiced together every day based on style of play and compatibility, and then he turned them loose. He seems to give no less thought to a visitor's questions about slumps. "A lot of times people buy equipment that puts them in a slump," he says. "If you've played well but your handicap's going up, you probably made a bad change. You have to recognize it. Just because you paid more money for a set of clubs doesn't mean they're better for you."

He also thinks that people don't think enough about visualization or shot trajectory. "If you become a trajectory-conscious player," he says, "you're less likely to hit it off-line."

Spend some time with Captain America, and it's clear that his mind is always working. Maybe it's the caffeine, but details aren't often overlooked. So it seems odd, when you walk out the back door toward the water, that the first few steps of the path are navigated over wide and smooth stones, but soon you encounter a gap, where there is only crushed coral. In the house where even a secret room was designed into the plan, I should have known that even a "mistake" has its purpose. "I left that stone out," Azinger says, "so I'll remember Payne every time I come out here."

For Paul Azinger, the path back might seem complete, but he'll never forget that something is missing.



From the book Breaking the Slump: How Great Players Survived Their Darkest Moments in Golf - and What You Can Learn from Them; by Jimmy Roberts. Copyright © 2009 by Jimmy Roberts. To be published March 31 by Collins, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. 224 pages, $24.99.