SONY OPEN IN HAWAII
Azinger on the road again
At 47, U.S. Ryder Cup captain Paul Azinger leaves his TV gig behind as he faces pressure to keep his spot on the PGA Tour
Paul Azinger will be only 16 months from joining the Champions Tour when he closes out his Ryder Cup captain tenure in the fall of 2008.
After turning 47 over the weekend, Azinger, whose last of a dozen PGA Tour victories occurred here in 2000, opens his 2007 season today at the Sony Open in Hawaii facing the daunting task of keeping his card against a tour that stays forever young.
He lost his TV gig with ABC after the tour and the network parted company at the close of 2006, forcing him out of the booth, where he was asked to be a critical thinker, and back in the locker room with the same guys he dogged and praised.
Azinger already has used his top 50 all-time money exemption, which means that if he doesn't win or is not among the top 125 money boys by season's end, he loses his tour card for the first time since 1984.
Despite his broadcast commitment, Azinger played in an amazing 30 events. He pocketed $702,090 in 2006, only $120,391 less than he made in 1987, the season he won his first three tournaments on tour. That was good enough for No. 2 in the world two decades ago. By contrast, he was No. 121 when they closed the books last November.
"I'm back to full-time golf and it's a relief, almost," Azinger said, before being a guest speaker at yesterday's PGA Aloha Section conference. "I'd rather not be doing both. It wasn't easy serving two masters. I had to take each of my top 50 money winners last year on tour. I just had to keep my card.
"At this point, I really don't have any tenure, either. You make your money or you don't. All my exempt status is gone. It's just like John Daly. There's no tenure there. His exempt status is gone. He's got to rely on exemptions. I felt that burden all year."
Azinger also dealt with the disappointment of ABC and the PGA being unable to reach an agreement on a contract extension. Tour commissioner Tim Finchem spends most of his time explaining the FedExCup to any and all who will listen,
when actually, moving golf off an established network like ESPN and onto the still-growing Golf Channel is as bold of move as any.
There was a good rapport in the booth between color commentators Azinger and Nick Faldo. Azinger lost the 1987 U.S. Open Championship by one shot to Faldo. And as fate would have it, they will square off as Ryder Cup captains when the best golfers from America and Europe tee it up at Valhalla Golf Club in September 2008. The Ryder Cup press conferences will be entertaining if they are anything like last year's weekend broadcasts on ABC.
"I think the general consensus was golf fans enjoyed what we were doing up there in the booth," Azinger said. "It was a little different. Personally, I didn't really want to pursue it. I liked it while I was doing it. But when ABC made the decision they weren't going to come back to golf, I didn't want to beat the bushes looking for another TV job.
"I couldn't play the tour unless I used my all-time top 50 money, my decision was clear, I'm going away from television altogether. I'm going to pursue golf. It's hard to say how well I'm going to play. I played decent at the end of the year. I made some nice checks. I played some key rounds. I was able to keep my card, so hopefully I'll have a little momentum."
It doesn't hurt that his start for 2007 is at Waialae Country Club. After his long bout with non-Hodgkins lymphoma that he talked about in his book, "Zinger" and the death of close friend Payne Stewart, who he eulogized in October 1999, Azinger won here wire-to-wire in 2000. He felt it was a sign from above. This course hasn't been quite as friendly to Azinger lately, but in the dawn of the FedExCup, he'll take his points where he can get them.
"Lately, it has been hit or miss -- either play well or miss the cut," Azinger said. "So, hopefully it's one of those times I play well. I'd like to get off to a good start. I hope this year is not as hard as it was last year. That was a pain. I did not enjoy last year. It's just hard to put it into perspective for someone who hasn't played.
"It was a gut-wrenching grind for me all year long to keep my status. I'm not trying to make a bigger deal out of it than it was. So what, I didn't get my card. I could still play golf, some. It's just that golf doesn't come easy for me anymore. Things I used to take for granted, like hitting the ball solid, I can't take that for granted anymore."
Azinger will begin to serve two masters again soon enough as he prepares for his role as captain of the Ryder Cup. Azinger seems a perfect choice to try to right the American ship. One challenge for Azinger is trying to make sure that cups don't collide. The end of the FedExCup and the start of the Ryder Cup are only one week apart.
"It's not ideal, but both the Americans and Europeans will have to deal with it," Azinger said. "I'm just sorry there won't be a lot of time for the team to spend together before the start of the Ryder Cup. The tour didn't consult PGA of America when it made its decision.
"As for being the Ryder Cup captain, it's a great honor. It's kind of a culmination of everything you have done as a player. You have to have a major championship and you have to have Ryder Cup experience."
You also have to be an administrator, including choosing the team's shoes, shirts, hats and golf bags, just to name a few. It's also trying to find a way to stop the Americans' current slide vs. the Europeans. Things haven't been pretty of late in this biannual event. One thing Azinger likes is the new point system that's now in place.
This year, only the majors will count toward making the team. Next year, it will be all the tournaments, with the majors counting as double. The top eight qualify, leaving Azinger four captain's choices, instead of two.
"Is this new selection process going to produce the hottest players?" Azinger said. "That's the main thing. If it does, I think it increases our chances. I think their selection process has been better. They take five off their money list and five off their world rankings. And they blend them well. Whoever's left off is picked by the captain.
"We'll have guys who haven't won a tournament all year long because our selection process was a little skewed. And everybody on their team was winning coming in. They may not be household names over here, but they're hot coming in. I think the most important thing is identify the guys who are playing the best."
And what about the pressure of winning? Well, Azinger can't think of a better way to go out as a PGA Tour member than the winning captain on the Ryder Cup.
"I think I'm going to enjoy the opportunity and the attention that goes with it," Azinger said. "I haven't had a lot of attention for a long time. If you play terrible for as long as I have, really poorly, it goes away. I always kind of liked the attention. It would be great to win it, wouldn't it? But there's a lot of hard work ahead. Truthfully, the Europeans have played better in those situations. We need to find a way to get it done."