Sunday, January 16, 2005

Sony Open

Paul Azinger, who is 45 years old, shot a 3-under 67 yesterday and sits two strokes back of leader Shigeki Maruyama after the third round of the Sony Open in Hawaii.

Azinger wants
to do more than
just talk

» Round 3 scores
» Maruyama runs with biggest crowd

Paul Azinger isn't ready to settle into the broadcast booth just yet.

Like many of the golf analysts before him, Azinger is splitting his time analyzing players for ABC-TV one week and competing with them the next, hopeful any comments he makes don't land him face-first in a bunker.

This week at the $4.8 million Sony Open in Hawaii, Azinger is taking a trip down memory lane to a time when the 45-year-old golfer wasn't listed in the back of the media guide among "other prominent PGA Tour members," but was one of the elite 125, a golfer to be feared.

Two consecutive years off the exempt list left Azinger seriously pondering his future. Last year, he missed the cut in the final two events he entered, leaving him on the outside looking in at No. 126 on the money list.

"It's kind of a fork in the road for me a little bit," Azinger conceded. "I still think I can play and I still want to play a full schedule on tour. But I want to take this as an opportunity to do something different at age 45 that's exciting to me, and hopefully, I can contribute, and I am excited about it."

He's also excited about being near the top of the Waialae Country Club leaderboard, one that has been kind to him through the years. The last time Azinger won on tour was here in 2000, when the pain of losing close friend Payne Stewart in a plane crash was still fresh on his mind.

At the time, Azinger was seven years removed from his previous win at the PGA Championship and wondered aloud if he would ever win another tour event. Azinger has 12 victories on tour, but is as known for his battle with cancer off the green in 1991 as all the victories on it.

Justin Rose reacted after draining a putt on the 18th green yesterday to finish the third round of the Sony Open in Hawaii with a 72. Rose is five shots behind leader Shigeki Maruyama.

"The year I won here, I was five shots ahead and I led the whole way," Azinger said. "There was a lot more importance on it, really, because I had not won a tournament since I got sick, and it meant that I would make it all the way back if I had won in 2000, which I did.

"Had I not, then I'd be in that boat right now and you'd be saying, 'Well, are you close to all the way back?' Once I won that tournament, that question finally went away."

His love affair with Hawaii is also well-documented. Azinger was close several times to getting a win here in the 1990s, with three seconds before finally breaking through. He'd like nothing better than to swing his way into the winner's circle later today.

Azinger put himself in that position with a bogey-free third round of 67, leaving him 8-under 202 for the tournament and only two shots out of the 54-hole lead held by Shigeki Maruyama at 200. If nothing else, Azinger has confidence in his bag entering today's final round.

"I honestly feel like if it's my time to do it, I'll do it," Azinger said of trying to win here again. "I said it the year I won this tournament if it's right for me to win, I'll win it. I have not gone ahead of myself. The only time I've looked back and regretted anything is not hitting a better pitch on the last hole today."

Even with a victory, Azinger will still spend time in the booth. He is realistic that his better golfing days are behind him.

"Well, my career is on my downswing, but I'm not giving up at all," Azinger said. "I want to change that, guys going to the booth and then bellying up. As poorly as I played at the end of last year, and being that it's the third time I've been offered an opportunity to work with one of the networks, I couldn't refuse. But I didn't want to do 20 broadcasts. I negotiated down to 12. That way, I can still be a full-time player."

And what are his expectations for today?

"I felt good coming in here, I really did," Azinger said. "I had a little angst because I have been feeling good and then not being able to play well, you know, in spots the last year. But I commented the first day in here that I had butterflies, which is good. Because without them, I don't think you can perform simply because I don't think you have a chance.

"There were a lot of reasons I had butterflies, the first tournament of the year, you want to get off to a good start. Michelle (Wie) is here, you don't want her to smoke you. Now here I am, but I really prepared I think properly in the offseason. I came here with a mind-set hoping I would be in this position."

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