Major victory for the defense

August 10, 1994|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Sun Staff Writer

TULSA, Okla. -- There was the standing-room gathering in May, when Paul Azinger discussed his battle with cancer during a heart-tugging 90-minute news conference here for the winner of last year's PGA Championship.

There was the first tournament appearance in more than eight months at last week's Buick Open, an uplifting event that saw Azinger resume his brilliant career and, despite missing the cut, continue on his comeback story.

And there was yesterday at Southern Hills Country Club, when Azinger seemed ready and more than willing to defend his one major title when the 76th PGA Championship begins tomorrow.

Whether he is able to do so successfully is another matter, but that doesn't seem to be a concern.

"Well, obviously it's great to be back," said Azinger, 34, whose condition was diagnosed last November as lymphoma in his right shoulder.

"When I won the tournament last year, as you all know, it was like a dream come true.

"I had been titled as the best player never to have won a major, so you can certainly understand how much it meant to win the PGA. And to never hear that question ever asked of me again. And, as you are all aware, I've been through a lot since I won this tournament."

While Azinger's doctors gave him a 90 percent chance to recover fully, there were concerns that his plan to play in this year's PGA Championship were unrealistic. There was even some talk, by Azinger himself, that he would give up the game even if given a clean bill of health.

"When I was diagnosed and after a few [chemotherapy and radiation] treatments, I talked about not really caring too much about the game," he said.

"But deep down inside, my goal was to be healthy enough to be able to come back and play in this tournament."

Last week's performance, Azinger's first since the Skins Game last November, was illuminating in a number of ways. It showed Azinger how much he missed the game. His opening-round 76 made him realize how rusty he was. His second-round 70 proved that he still was competitive. And it also showed Azinger, with 11 victories and nearly $7 million in prize money during an 11-year-career, that he was more than just a golfer.

"I realize how much my life has changed since I have cancer -- or had cancer," said Azinger, who was given clearance to play by famed California orthopedist Frank Jobe after there were no signs of the lymphoma. "I understand now that I have an opportunity to be an inspiration to a lot of people who are fighting a disease.

"I know a lot of people don't have the same hope that I had. If I can inspire them by just being out there, then that's just the way it has to be. It's a new calling almost, and I'm willing to take that on. I don't have a problem with that."

Azinger's return has not only inspired his fans, who helped account for more than 15,000 cards and letters, but his fellow pros as well. One of the PGA Tour's more popular players before his illness, Azinger said last week that he heard from nearly every player on tour.

Cory Pavin, who played with Azinger during the first two rounds at the Buick Open, said yesterday, "It was really fantastic to be on the first tee when they introduced him and he got such a long ovation. I think everybody on the tour feels good that he's back out. He's a great player, a great guy and the tour is better for having him out here."

Azinger's sudden-death victory over Greg Norman in last year's PGA Championship at Inverness was the last by an American in one of the sport's four majors. Azinger says he hopes that the streak ends here this week, but he doesn't seem confident enough in his game yet to successfully defend the title.

"I'd say I'm hitting it OK," said Azinger, who has regained nearly all of the 20 pounds he lost during treatment, as well as most of his hair. "I'm playing you know only for the second time competitively in nine months. So I really can't speculate on my chances. I just know that I'm a little rusty, and we'll see how my nerve is when it matters."

About the only time Azinger seemed to get emotional yesterday was when someone asked him if his goal is to make the cut. That's when he looked like the Azinger of old, ready to show the same competitive juices on or off the course.

"My goal," he said, "is never to just to make the cut. My goal is to see my name on the leader board."


What: 76th PGA Championship

When: Tomorrow through Sunday

Where: Southern Hills Country Club, Tulsa, Okla.

Course: 6,834 yards, par 35-3570

Cut: After two rounds, low 70 scorers and all tied for 70th

Playoff (if necessary): Sudden death

Purse: To be announced ($1.7 million minimum)

Winner's share: To be announced ($300,000 minimum)

Defending champion: Paul Azinger

Former champions in field: Azinger, John Daly, Ray Floyd, Wayne Grady, David Graham, Hubert Green, John Mahaffey, Larry Nelson, Jack Nicklaus, Nick Price, Jeff Sluman, Payne Stewart, Hal Sutton, Bob Tway, Lanny Wadkins

TV: Tomorrow -- TBS, noon-6 p.m.. Friday -- TBS, noon-6 p.m.. Saturday -- TBS, 11 a.m.-1 p.m.; chs. 11, 9, 1:30-6 p.m.. Sunday -- TBS, 11 a.m.-1 p.m.; chs. 11, 9, 1:30-6 p.m.

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