Stockton: Azinger “best ever” Ryder Cup captain
Saturday, December 26, 2009
What’s this? Paul Azinger turns 50 on Jan. 6? No way.
Golf fans know Azinger as winner of the 1993 PGA Championship and 11 other PGA Tour events. Two-time PGA champion Dave Stockton calls Azinger the “best ever” Ryder Cup captain.
Meanwhile, I call him Zing-A-Ding.
I remember Azinger when he was 15, skinny as a flagpole and largely inept at golf. The boy couldn’t play the game worth a lick.
Azinger was a wild junior golfer. He was all over the place. He couldn’t hit a fairway if life and limb depended on it. As they used to joke, he “couldn’t hit the water if he fell out of the boat.”
The water image was appropriate. Back in those days, Azinger was more skilled at boats than golf. He loved the rivers and bays around Sarasota, Fla., where he played high school golf and where I took my first newspaper job.
It all changed for Azinger when he went away to Brevard Community College in Cocoa Beach, Fla. That’s where he met Dr. Jim Suttie, the golf instructor who would retool his swing and his attitude.
Under Suttie’s supervision, Azinger grew up physically and mentally.
“When I first met Jim Suttie, I couldn’t break 80 two days in a row,” Azinger reminisced. “After three years with Jim as my coach, I was on the PGA Tour.”
Azinger made remarkable progress. While at Brevard, he came out of nowhere to win Golfweek’s Florida State Amateur Match Play Championship. His career progressed onward and upward after that.
With fellow Sarasota High School graduate Tom Janis as his caddie, Azinger started his assault on the PGA Tour. He would win 12 tournament titles, plus two on the PGA European Tour.
The 1993 PGA Championship, where he beat Greg Norman in a playoff, was his only major victory.
However, the combative Azinger never went down quietly. He challenged in many majors. He was runnerup in the 1988 PGA Championship, tied for second in the 1987 British Open, tied for third in the 1993 U.S. Open and was fifth in the 1998 Masters.
Off the course, Azinger overcame a cancerous growth in his shoulder and later would become the fiery and widely admired captain of the victorious 2008 U.S. Ryder Cup team.
Stockton, captain of the triumphant U.S. Ryder Cup in 1991, came back to serve as one of Azinger’s assistant captains (along with Raymond Floyd and Olin Browne) for that 2008 Ryder Cup team.
Here’s what Stockton had to say about the Zinger:
“I’m not trying to brag, but I think Azinger was really smart in picking Floyd and me. I really do. With our experience, we helped that team win.
“At the opening ceremony, (Jack) Nicklaus walked right by me and asked what the hell I was doing there. I told him I was going to help the U.S. team win the Ryder Cup. I believed it then, and I believe it now. Jack, in his mind, didn’t seem to understand that we (the assistant captains) really played an important role.
“In my opinion, Azinger was the best there has ever been as far as captain. He made lots of changes, he was innovative, and he was a true general. He would ride up and ask us (the assistant captains) questions, then he’d ride off. It’s not like he had to spend time with all 12 players. He did what a general does, letting the people underneath him run the thing.
“For years, there were four of us who would sit around and talk about the Ryder Cup and how to pair the players. Those four were Azinger, me, Lanny Wadkins and Payne Stewart.
“So Azinger was ready. He lobbied for four (captain’s) picks and got them. He was able to pick them closer to the Ryder Cup. He succeeded in getting the maximum number of assistants bumped up from two to four (although Azinger used only three).
“Then he divided the players in pods. Each pod had four players, and each of the three assistant captains was responsible for a pod. It was a brilliant strategy. My four guys were Stewart Cink, Ben Curtis, Chad Campbell and Steve Stricker. I babysat and handled and took care of them.
“I had the quiet guys – quiet and steady. Then there were the hillbillies and the gung-ho guys. I don’t say this to offend anybody. We were having fun and trying to win the Ryder Cup. Each of the three groups had its own personality, and it was Azinger who pulled everybody together.”
And now he’s about to turn 50 and launch another attack, this time on the Champions Tour. It should be fun to watch.