PAUL Azinger returns to the scene of arguably his most emotional victory as he defends his Sony Open title starting Thursday at the Waialae Country Club.
Not his biggest victory. That's winning his first major, the 1993 PGA Championship, in a playoff with Greg Norman at Inverness. Or his greatest triumph -- beating cancer after a life-and-death struggle in 1994.
But finally winning at Waialae before so many friends and gallery supporters was truly special, according to Azinger. It ended any self-doubts that he would ever win again, Azinger admitted. And he did it in impressive fashion, going wire-to-wire to post a 19-under-par 261 after an opening-round 63. Tiger Woods (twice) and Hal Sutton were the only other two wire-to-wire winners.
It was also an emotional time for Azinger, who played with others in mind. Not only those who had undergone chemotherapy treatment as he did. But also because of the deaths of those who were close to him -- his cousin, his two agents and a close friend, Payne Stewart. "How much joy can you feel when life has so much heartache," Azinger said after his victory.
Still, it was special to win, especially in Hawaii, according to Azinger, who played in the Mercedes Championships at Kapalua, Maui, last weekend. The victory in the Sony Open -- his first since 1993 -- earned him a spot in the winners-only event.
He finished in a tie for 17th at 283, dinged somewhat by a closing 75.
But consecutive nines of 31, unfortunately in different rounds Friday and Saturday, showed glimpses of Azinger's comeback game and renewed competitive desire.
"I was wondering if anyone noticed that," Azinger said about his 11-under-62 over that stretch. It didn't go unnoticed by playing partner Billy Andrade nor several members of the media.
Everyone, though, noticed Azinger's eye-opening numbers on the PGA Tour last year. His 69.68 scoring average ranked fifth and his $1.6 million (minus change) in earnings was a career high. He missed only one cut in 20 tournaments -- the best he has ever done -- with seven top-10 finishes.
Azinger, though, was prouder of his putting stats. He averaged 1.733, which was fourth best last year, trailing only Brad Faxon, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson in that order.
"It would be really neat if you checked and found out where I was in putting the year before and see how much I've improved," Azinger said. (He was tied for 111th.)
"That's the main indication why I'm playing much better," he said.
SO you could say "Zinger" is back in more ways than one.
"I'm so pumped to be back here," Azinger said about Waialae. And the feeling's even greater now that he's back as defending champion.
"I had so many chances to win the Sony and Hawaiian Open," Azinger said. "I'm thinking the first few times, well, I'm going to win here one day. Then, after a while, I'm thinking, 'Man, I'm probably never going to win here.' But I did. It was great."
Azinger hopes that winning at Waialae becomes a habit, just as finishing runner-up had been for so frustratingly long.
"I like the golf course. I want to get off to a good start. I'm going to try to do the same things I always do to get ready. Not get out of my routine or try not to get pulled in a bunch of different directions."
Playing in the Mercedes the week before and now in the Sony Open is a great way to start 2001, Azinger said.
He hopes what he did last year will be a building block to what will be another nice run for an already great career except for that one dark moment in 1994.
"I feel a lot more confident. I'm not living and dying in my practice rounds like I used to when I was playing bad."