After PGA puts up a competitive front, the winner slips through the back door

Phil Jackman

August 16, 1993|By Phil Jackman

For a guy who targeted the PGA Championship as the victory he hoped would propel him into the upper echelon of golf, Paul Azinger looked awfully shaky if not downright embarrassed yesterday when Greg Norman rimmed a short putt and "The Zinger" finally had his first major title.

After days of classy shot-making and competition as tight as could be recalled by the most faithful of television golf-watchers, Azinger stood there in shock after the Norman miss, which followed his own shattering failure from six feet.

With more than 26 hours of coverage by TBS and CBS, viewers had been on a definite high from Thursday through yesterday when no fewer than four golfers hit the 5 o'clock hour tied at 11-under-par. They were the survivors, and the men immediately behind Azinger, Norman, Nick Faldo and Vijay Singh weren't bad either: Tom Watson, Hale Irwin, Scott Simpson, John Cook and Bob Estes.

Soon, it was down to the two playoff contestants and, unfortunately, victory arrived via the back door after two holes. As opposed to most tournaments where the winner gets to celebrate by knocking in a putt and maybe jumping into a lake or something, there stood Azinger the beneficiary of Norman's cruel fate.

No doubt Zinger had dreamed of this moment but, chances are, his time never arrived as a result of another's stumble. A couple of weeks ago, Azinger had logged his 10th tour victory and, at the beginning of June, he had triumphed in The Memorial. Those wins had boosted him to second on the all-time money list, but he admitted to an empty feeling nonetheless.

"The money isn't really why we play the game, though it's nice not having to worry about how much missing a four-foot putt is going to cost you," he said. "These days we play for million-dollar purses every week. Heck, I should be richer than I am."

But the emotional Azinger often has been his own worst enemy. He recalls that during the last round of the win in the New England Classic, "I was whining like a baby when my caddie let me have it. He yelled at me, 'You're playing well and putting well, so snap out of it.' It got me back on track."

And now with a major and $6.6 million in career earnings gathered since the fall of 1981, Zinger leads the 12-player U.S. squad against the Europeans in the Ryder Cup matches next month. It's a long way from the end of 1985 when, after four years on tour, he had made a total of $120,000 and owed his backers a lot of money.

"But I wouldn't trade those special days back then for anything," he insists. "I remember one time when I was traveling the tour in a motor home with my wife and a cat when I pulled into a tournament. There was a power line stretching across the entrance and, being the great driver that I am, I drove right through and the wire grabbed onto the luggage rack and peeled it right off the top of the rig."

That season, the Azingers usually ended up parking the trailer by the trees at the end of the parking lot at tourney sites and cooking their meals on a hibachi. "It's hard to believe what has happened to me," he says. "Today, I feel blessed."

* It's pitiful to recall that ABC used to bill itself as "The network of the Olympics" and "The recognized leader in sports television around the world," all the while living up to the claim. What the network did to the World Track and Field Championships out of Stuttgart, Germany, during the weekend bordered on criminal negligence.

Saturday, just two finals were contested surrounded by a bunch of preliminary heats on the track and qualifying for various field events. One final involved the men's marathon and, get this, it was won by an American, the first victory by a U.S. citizen in a major international distance run in years.

Adding to the story was that it was an expatriated South African, Mark Plaatjes, sworn to citizenship here just a month ago, who prevailed. Is it possible all the man's accomplishment was worthy of was about a minute's time as the runners circled the stadium track at the beginning, his move to the lead in the 24th mile and a quick shot of Plaatjes crossing the finish line? According to ABC, yes.

Instead, we got a half-dozen heats, those early-round efforts where the leaders ease off to a jog late to save themselves for subsequent heats, and the usual supply of tiresome interviews with athletes who rarely have anything to say. An added "feature" was pertinent commentary such as Carl Lewis' sister, Carol, telling us that half-miler "Joetta Clark wants to get into the final." Unfortunately, this meant we had to watch Joetta's race, and she failed to advance to the semifinals.

While it's true track coverage has always been pretty bad, the nets insisting on jamming "up close and personal" filler and soft features down our throats, ABC all but promised it would be different this time. "More and more races," a spokesman vowed. Perhaps next weekend when Saturday and Sunday afternoon shows are on for a combined 3 1/2 hours. Don't hold your breath.

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