Jitters are sure shot Azinger has returned Competitive spirit back after bout with lymphoma

April 11, 1997|By John Eisenberg | John Eisenberg,SUN STAFF

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- They sighed with relief as they walked up the first fairway at Augusta National yesterday morning, having TC survived the jittery ritual of hitting their first shots at the Masters.

"There aren't many first shots that make you [feel nervous] like that," Tom Kite said to Paul Azinger.

Azinger shook his head in amazement.

"I didn't feel any butterflies last year, or the year before, either," he said. "I didn't feel anything on the first tee."

His butterflies were back yesterday, welcomed with joy.

They meant that Azinger, 37, cared again, that he was no longer just going through the motions -- as he did for two years, admittedly, after returning to golf following a bout with lymphoma that included surgery to remove a tumor in his shoulder and then a withering rehabilitation that included radiation and chemotherapy treatments.

"If you don't have the jitters, you probably don't think you have a chance to win," Azinger said later yesterday, after shooting a 69 to land near the top of the leader board after one round at the Masters.

He knew he didn't have a chance to win any tournament in 1995 or 1996; he had only two top-10 finishes in 45 starts, as opposed to 46 top-10 finishes before his cancer was discovered late in 1993.

His strength was back, but his touch wasn't. His game was terrible.

Still, it was hard to get too upset when he was excited just to be alive, wake up every day and play with his two daughters.

"I wanted to vacate, to live life a little bit," he said, "and I still do want that. But now I want to live life and play good golf, too."

He played a lot of good golf before his illness; he was one of the best in the world, winner of 11 tournaments and a member of three Ryder Cup teams.

After setting that standard, he didn't have much fun scuffling around the tour the past two years. But he wasn't sweating it.

"Golf just wasn't a priority," he said. "I wanted good results, but I didn't want to put forth the effort to get them. I was just going through the motions."

A gentle scolding from his wife last year reinvigorated his attitude.

"We were playing Houston and I looked up on the scoreboard and I was in last place by a good four or five shots," Azinger said. "I was whining and complaining, and my wife said, 'Don't complain to me, you don't practice as hard as you used to.' She was right. I had some fundamental flaws in my swing that I wasn't committed to correcting."

Renewing his dedication has helped him this year; he has three top-20 finishes in six starts, with subpar scores in 16 of 24 rounds. He tied for seventh at Pebble Beach and tied for ninth at the Hawaiian Open.

His desire was further sharpened by a conversation with his agent earlier this year.

"He asked me if I wanted to play the Senior Tour [in 13 years] or should he start setting me up in something else, like broadcasting," Azinger said. "It was, like, 'What do you want to do with your life?' I thought about it for a few days and told him, 'I think I do want to play the Senior Tour.' This is what I want. I want to play golf."

Harder practices, better concentration and heightened desire combined to produce yesterday's round, which included four birdies and one bogey on a day when only seven golfers broke par.

"I haven't hit it any better all year than I did today," he said. "I hope I can keep it up."

He has never played particularly well at the Masters. His best finish, in nine appearances, is a tie for 14th in 1989.

"A lot of people won't consider me all the way back until I win a golf tournament, and this would obviously be a great one to win," he said. "But it depends on what you measure me by. I consider myself all the way back already."

Pub Date: 4/11/97

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