SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. – In an era when relationships among the world’s best golfers lean more toward hugs than hostility, Paul Azinger is an unapologetic throwback to a time when Tour pros would think twice about even giving each other a Heimlich.
He doesn’t play much these days, but Azinger’s love of competition – the honor of it, as much as the thrill – remains undimmed. If only some of today’s players felt as competitive as the guy in the booth at the 118th U.S. Open Championships.
It should come as no surprise that the Fox Sports lead analyst is openly hostile to backstopping, the controversial “helping hand” practice that has been the subject of heated debate on the grounds at Shinnecock Hills.
“The person at fault with backstopping is the person that goes next, not the guy who chips it up there a foot-and-a-half past the hole,” he said. “The next to play has the responsibility to ask the guy who chipped it there to mark. He needs to be told, ‘You need to mark that!’ The guy about to hit the next shot should not have that advantage. He just should not. The responsibility falls on the guy who could take advantage of it, not the guy who chips it up. He has to look like a bad guy for running up there and marking his ball?”
Zinger’s tone moves from incredulity to indignation.
“No!” he insisted. “The bad guy is the guy who chips a ball when that ball is sitting there. Nobody should do that! Nobody should do that!”
Backstopping is an integral part of the creeping chumminess on the PGA Tour, the doing of solids that is in danger of trumping the rulebook. Azinger encourages that friendliness, when the final putt falls.
“I don’t think you can be friendly enough, but there’s a decorum that needs to be followed,” he said. “It’s something the Tour should address.
“In our generation, the guy who chipped it up there, we didn’t have to tell him to mark that ball. He went up and marked it and we waited on him to mark it. That’s just how it was. It’s not right and we all know it’s not right. Be friendly and all that, but do it correctly.”
Azinger brings up his Fox Sports colleague, the flinty Curtis Strange.
“If Curtis chipped it up there a foot-and-a-half past the hole and his twin brother had a chip, Curtis would run up and mark it!” he said.
It’s that relentless passion that once made Azinger a formidable competitor and which today makes him a fearless analyst. That was evident earlier this month at the U.S. Women’s Open, when Ariya Jutanugarn applauded her opponent Hyo Joo Kim during the playoff. Azinger couldn’t believe what he was watching.
“It was the least competitive thing I’d ever seen,” he said. “She still had to hit a putt. Let the competition conclude then show all the sportsmanship in the world. I just don’t see Hale Irwin clapping if Curtis Strange makes a 25-footer on him.”
Azinger was castigated for his criticism on social media, a battlefield on which he was once a fervent and controversial combatant, until he signed on with Fox.
“I got reamed out by 30 people on Twitter,” he said. “Who cares?”
His wife, Toni, wasn’t much impressed either.
“You know what my wife said? She said two things. First, it’s probably why she won. And then she said, ‘You know, Paul, girls are different than boys.’ And they are different, and it’s a different generation,” he said. “I don’t know. It just felt uncompetitive to me. It’s like congratulating a guy for hitting a three-run homer in the bottom of the ninth to beat you by a run in the World Series. That’s what it felt like to me.”
The 1993 PGA Championship winner says he doesn’t give a moment’s thought to how players might interpret his comments, but insists he at least strives to stay above the belt.
“I don’t think it’s fair to beat up the players,” he said. “My incentive is to let the picture be descriptive and I’ll try to be informative. I know how hard it is. I’m as candid as I can be. Occasionally I can make it personal. It’s just not good to make it personal.”
At 58, Azinger is a gimlet-eyed observer of the golf landscape, ever alert to the changes between his era and today’s. He played in that U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills in 1986, when Raymond Floyd was the last man standing in an epic Sunday shootout. They became Ryder Cup teammates, cut from the same competitive cloth.
“Raymond was such a gentleman on the golf course,” he said. “But boy he could look at you, you know? That look was like…” His voice trails off in admiration.
So who is the Ray Floyd in the field more than three decades later? I ask. He pauses.
“I don’t think anybody is scared of anybody any more,” he said. “They’re not scared of Tiger anymore even. They should be, but they’re not. I just don’t see that as much. Everybody is friendly with everybody. It’s a lot less competitive in a lot of different, subtle ways.”
He sounds almost nostalgic for the days when guys wore steel spikes that left deeper scars on the throats of their opponents. Not like the soft spikes he sees today.
“That clapping for the opponent when you’ve still got eight feet and you’ve lost a seven-shot lead?” he said, still unable to comprehend weeks later. “That ranks pretty high up on my list of the least competitive things I’ve ever seen. It’s OK if that’s the way you want to be. She won anyway. Maybe she won because she had such a good heart.”
He ponders his own theory for a second, but doesn’t sound convinced.