He had just secured his fishing boat to the dock behind his house on the Manatee River inlet in Bradenton, Fla. The flight to Mexico was a couple of days out. Bags weren’t packed, yet, but that wouldn’t take long. One of the perks Paul Azinger gave himself during his playing days was an elevator in his closet. A couple of fashionable suits – a wardrobe upgrade his wife, Toni, helped assemble once he knew his television career would continue – along with some casual attire (jeans are hit-or-miss after some criticism at the U.S. Women’s Open a few years back) and he can press a button and send the suitcase down to the garage where he keeps his jeep, Toni’s SUV and a revolving inventory of motorcycles – Harleys, BMWs and spartan dirt bikes that most people wouldn’t climb aboard on a bet.
Zinger still rides, although not as much as a few years ago when he and a couple of buddies would cruise from west Florida to the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina and back. Or when he’d take one of the bikes to Augusta to work the Masters. Or when he’d pick a major power-line easement and see how far he could go on a dirt bike before getting bogged down. Grandchildren cut out some of that. His new job should throttle it back even more.
This particular morning, before his gig as NBC’s lead golf analyst kicked off at the WGC-Mexico Championship, Zinger carried three sheepshead, ranging from 3 to 5 pounds, on a line from the dock to the kitchen. “It’ll do for dinner,” he said with a slight chuckle.
He’d hoped to play golf that day but said, “I couldn’t find any guys to go with me. It’s probably a good thing, too. I’m hitting it great and might have gotten cocky. Who knows. All those guys want to do now is get in my pocket. But I’ve still got it, better than I’ve played in a while.”
If it didn’t sound so egotistical, which the man most certainly is not, “still got it” could be Azinger’s motto for life. More than a quarter of a century after battling and beating lymphoma, and 11 years after reinvigorating the American side in the Ryder Cup with his radical pod system, Azinger is the face of NBC golf, replacing Johnny Miller in the booth, while still remaining with Fox Sports for its USGA broadcasts of the U.S. Open and U.S. Women’s Open.
From players to fellow broadcasters, the reaction has been emphatic.
“I’m so fortunate to get to sit by him,” Fox’s Joe Buck told me. “And I’m so thankful that NBC and Fox were able to work out an exception to the rule, which is sharing major talent. It was something I was really worried about. I’m glad they figured out a way to make it happen.”
Such arrangements are rare. Nick Faldo is the lead analyst for both Golf Channel and CBS but those are not competing broadcast networks, even though NBC and Golf Channel are attempting to consolidate their brands. Other than that, networks jealously insulate their talent, writing ironclad non-compete clauses into most contracts.
Azinger, 59, is the exception. But he always has been.
When Ken Venturi was planning to retire from CBS, Zinger was one of the first people producer Lance Barrow called about potentially replacing him. Not long after that call, Zinger won the Hawaiian Open and qualified for another Presidents Cup and another Ryder Cup. With his playing career booming, he put television out of his mind.
But by the time another producer, Mark Loomis from ABC, called, Zinger was paring back his schedule.
“I talked to a lot of guys and realized that he was very receptive to the idea of being a broadcaster,” Loomis told me. “He has a great air about him. He seemed like a fun guy to be around. But more than anything, he was very thoughtful. The one thing about Paul that makes him great at this job is that you can very rarely ask him a question where he hasn’t thought about the answer. And when you do happen to ask him something that he hasn’t thought about, he says, ‘Hmm, I don’t know, let me think about that,’ instead of trying to come up with something off the top of his head.”
“Exactly how you see him on the air is exactly how he is one on one, or in a small group, or in a large audience giving a speech. His likability is through the roof. The more you get to know him, the more you like him.” Joe Buck
The one thing he had thought long and hard about was the structure of a broadcast team and where he did and did not want to end up.
According to Loomis, “When I first started talking to him about coming to ABC, he was ahead of his time because he told me, ‘Look, if I go into the tower at 17, I will always be thought of as the 17th hole guy. Nobody will ever think of me as the 18th hole guy.’ He was the first person to come to me with that, which wasn’t a bad way to think about it. In his mind he always wanted to be in the main spot or not do it at all. That was our original conversation.
“So, when Curtis (Strange) left (the analyst spot at ABC), I called Paul back and said, ‘You said you wanted to be the 18th hole guy, well that’s open.’ ”
His first event was the 2005 Western Open and according to Loomis, any and all apprehension was gone within seconds.
“He was immediately that same person that you sat with in the production trailer,” he said. “He was the same person on air as the guy you talked to an hour before or the day before or the week before.
“That happens a lot less often than you think, certainly a lot less often than you hope. You think a guy is great because he’s great at the dinner table, he’s great playing a round of golf with you, and he’s great in press conferences or entertaining a crowd as a speaker. Then he goes on the air and something happens.”
Buck agreed with that assessment. “Exactly how you see him on the air is exactly how he is one on one, or in a small group, or in a large audience giving a speech. His likability is through the roof. The more you get to know him, the more you like him.
“You hear other analysts – and I get it, because I think it speaks to the insecurities that we all have – but they say ‘I’m going to make this point, I’m going to make it again, I’m going to wear it out, I’m going to remake the point and then I’m going to make the point in conclusion.’ Paul’s been through a lot personally with his health. So, I don’t feel like he worries about the reaction to what he says. When you’re in that head space you can say what you feel and let it sit there.
“He’s a confident, secure guy in life and on the air. And that shows.”
“I don’t think anybody can be exactly the same person in front of the camera as they are away from it because we all have a filter,” said Azinger, still smelling of salt water and fresh fish. “I’m always a little nervous looking into that camera. That’s a good thing, I guess. I feel like I’m reasonably close to the same person but the burden about calling live golf is you don’t have a clue what’s going to happen.
“It’s hard to prepare for what you don’t know is coming unless you’ve spent a lifetime doing it.”
Those kinds of nuggets spill out in almost every conversation.
“You know Tom Watson told me that when he was getting advice from Byron Nelson, Nelson told him, ‘There are two kinds of golfers: those who need to know a little, and those who need to know it all. Which one do you think is easier?’
“I love quoting Percy Boomer. He had some great ones. He said, ‘Your hands in the golf swing are like spark plugs in a car. You need them to run but when they backfire on you, you got problems.’”
And about television:
“I don’t think about who I’m talking to when I’m on the air, whether it’s one person or a million people. It’s like the golf swing: It doesn’t take that long, so I don’t have time to think about it.”
Back to Buck.
“Paul, to me, embodies the cliché, ‘To know him is to love him,’ ” Buck said. “I can’t imagine anybody who calls Paul Azinger a friend who doesn’t just love the guy and love being around him. That goes for being with him at dinner, at a reception, in a round of golf, or in the tower getting ready to call a U.S. Open. He’s one of those people who makes everyone around him feel good.
“Paul’s also a great listener. That’s not just rare in sports television, it’s rare in society as a whole these days where everybody wants to scream and shout and not listen to the other person.”
“More than anything, I want to impress on everybody the importance of feel. We can talk about golf swings all day long. But feel trumps thought. Always.” Paul Azinger
Azinger will listen and learn but he also won’t hesitate to stiff-arm you if you get too intrusive, especially when it comes to information about golf.
“Golf’s not that difficult,” he said. “There are so many things that you can know about golf but that doesn’t make all of those things important.
“Guys are dissecting every inch of the golf swing but I always go back to the fact that no two golf swings have ever looked exactly the same. The Hall of Fame is full of a lot of golf swings that looked very different. When I’m explaining that, I would rather oversimplify. I’m dumbing it down, not for the audience, but for me, for myself.
“You have a lot of intellectual bullies out there who have jumped into the golf industry. ‘Here’s your swing, I have you on video and you’re doing this, this, this and this. Your hip angle at the moment of transition is so many degrees here and your wrist position at the halfway point of your backswing is off by this number of degrees.’ All these people who didn’t play the game at any high level have poured in and broken down the swing through the eye and through technology. But they’ve forgotten the most important part: Feel. Feel under pressure and a feeling that is repeatable. Can you feel something that you can repeat under the gun? That’s the most important thing and that’s the thing that all the video and analytics can’t tell you.
“Look, I’m hitting the ball really well right now, better than I have in a long time. And the difference is, a few weeks ago, I strengthened my grip. How many ‘experts’ would have told me to strengthen my grip? Not one. Nobody. But I haven’t missed a shot since I did it.
“How many people would have told Ben Hogan, ‘You can’t lay the club off like that.’ A lot. But that’s the thing. Nobody can feel for you. Nobody can feel the swing for you and nobody can feel the pressure you feel coming down the stretch for you.
“A lot of players have figured it out and are able to filter out all these intellectual bullies. But not everybody can. Those guys who got their engineering and biomechanics degrees, they’re really smart and players can fall for that stuff. But Jack Nicklaus didn’t fall for it. Of course he wasn’t being bombarded by it, either.
“I plan to hit hard on the fact that these (current PGA Tour players) have made the game simple. I want to talk about how a player evaluates a lie. I want to talk about what goes through a player’s head, or at least what was going through my head.
“More than anything, I want to impress on everybody the importance of feel. We can talk about golf swings all day long. But feel trumps thought. Always.”
With that nugget, he was off to prepare the sheepshead for dinner. Toni would be home soon. A perfect home-cooked meal before he hit the road.
Top: Paul Azinger on Golf Channel’s Morning Drive in 2018
Photo: Cy Cyr, Golf Channel
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