Azinger gives life best shot


AUGUSTA, Ga. -- That Paul Azinger is present and accounted for at the annual Masters tournament lawn party causes a glow of quiet elation and, at the same time, prayers of profound gratitude. This is one golfer who doesn't have to win one of the most coveted of all championships -- although that's his pronounced intention.

Just being here as a part of the Masters show provides graphic awareness of how fortunate he is to be alive. He doesn't have to beat the golf course because he has already beaten cancer.

What an occasion for reflection, not on whether he has enough club to carry the creek for his second shot on No. 13, but to walk, to breathe fresh air and, candidly, to be on top of God's good earth rather than under it.

Paul never stops taking personal inventory. Masters week is an appropriate occurrence on the calendar to contrast the past and present. Azinger had to decline the same event a year ago because cancer treatments were more vital than how high he might be on the leader board.

While Jose Maria Olazabal was running in birdie putts to become the 1994 Masters champion, Azinger had a more difficult assignment trying to recover from a cancer operation. His fellow professionals were assembled for the Masters, where he played seven previous years, then, suddenly, he wasn't able to be with them.

His main focus was to prevail in a tougher contest by listening to the doctors and following orders impeccably. "My priorities really changed," he said. "You realize golf is just not that important."

Azinger, on the eve of the current Masters, was called to the podium to accept the Ben Hogan Award, which is given by the Golf Writers Association of America to a performer displaying exceptional characteristics of courage. Azinger was virtually an automatic to receive the honor.

"When Dr. Frank Jobe gave me news of my cancer it floored me," he explained. "I was thinking it might be some kind of a muscular problem because the pains in my right shoulder went back to 1987."

But, no, the diagnosis was correct. Azinger had to leave the tour immediately to undergo surgery, then chemotherapy and radiation treatments and then, after the all-clear was given, pursue rehabilitation to strengthen the shoulder.

He mentions that he "respected the lack of phone calls from golfers, friends and sportswriters." Then he hastened to add how considerate it was for people to think of him but preferred not to have to continually repeat a blow-by-blow account of his progress and what went on during his visits to Loma Linda Hospital in Redlands, Calif.

He says had it not been for the love and attention of his wife, Toni, he doubts if he could have endured the emotional torment and the concern of what the future was going to bring. He would look at his daughters, Sarah Jean and Josie Lynn, and hope to God he would be around to see them mature, to gain an education and to grow into adults.

"This experience taught me none of us are promised tomorrow," Azinger said. "We need to live every day to the fullest. I'm grateful for every blessing I've got. It was a tough week last year to be home watching the Masters on television and realizing I wasn't there. That wasn't easy."

But, again, he realizes it was necessary first to recover and then improve to the next physical level. He got back for tournament appearances late in the year and was in four PGA events.

The way the public and fellow players welcomed him was an overwhelming experience. "I could never tell you the number of fans who came up to me and said my coming back to play golf had been an inspiration to others they knew who were coping with cancer," Azinger said.

As for the current Masters, he was on the firing line when it all began yesterday. He shot a highly commendable 70, 2-under par, in the opening round, but again, that's not considered pertinent when measured with how well he feels and his excitement about the future.

Now 35 years old and with 11 tour victories to his credit, including the 1993 PGA title, he displays a wry sense of humor. At the golf writers function, he quipped, "This is the first time I ever wore a coat and necktie to a barbecue." Then he stripped himself of the tie and tossed it aside.

"I have a love-hate relationship with the Masters," Azinger admitted. "I love it when I arrive and hate it when I leave."

The Masters experience could hardly be defined more aptly than that. But then Azinger goes on to repeat what Johnny Miller, once a highly successful tour player and now a broadcaster, mentioned to him: "Johnny told me, 'It's not what you accomplish in life; it's what you have overcome.' "

Azinger reminds himself what this all means. "If you have your health you've got it all," he said. "I took it for granted before, but I'll never take it for granted again."

Golf has taken on a different perspective. Winning a battle to live could never be correlated with the numbers on a scorecard.

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