He celebrated his 60th birthday in paradise, surrounded by family and friends. Paul Azinger brought his wife, brother and sister-in-law to Maui for last week’s Sentry Tournament of Champions, not that any of his relatives cared much about the golf. They were there to soak up the sunshine, enjoy the whitecaps near Makaluapuna Point and to sip mango smoothies while whales spawned off the beach at Kapalua. And, of course, they were there to celebrate Zinger’s 60th, a milestone he never thought about until it was upon him.
“I honestly never looked that far ahead,” he said by phone as he stood on the 14th tee at Kapalua’s Plantation Course and stared westward across the sea. “I was never that much of a visionary. In fact, I never looked beyond playing. Then, suddenly, here I am.”
Where he is is occupying one of the most coveted seats in sports, lead golf analyst for two of the three broadcast networks in the game, NBC Sports and Fox Sports. Azinger, a 12-time PGA Tour winner and major champion, is arguably the voice of golf, the analyst who gives fans insight while sounding like a buddy sitting next to you at the 19th hole.
“All I can do is be who I am. My job is to give the viewer the perspective from inside the huddle, to let them know what it’s like to be in the situations these guys find themselves in.”
“I’m just a hick, really,” said Azinger, a former ABC/ESPN announcer who joined Fox Sports as lead analyst for its USGA championship coverage in 2016 and succeeded the retiring Johnny Miller as NBC’s lead analyst last year. “I mean, you look at the people I’ve been able to work with – Dan Hicks, Tommy Roy, Mark Loomis, Mike McQuade at ESPN, Mike Tirico, Joe Buck – it’s amazing. I’ve been able to work with the most talented people and the best producers out there. I love it. It’s such an honor to be able to call golf and to analyze swings.
“I mean, think about it. Coming into NBC, think about the perspective of (Roger) Maltbie and (David) Feherty and (Gary) Koch, (Jim) Bones (MacKay), Notah (Begay) and Hicks. That was a tight-knit group. I didn’t know how they would take me walking in there. But from Day 1, they embraced me. They’ve all been fantastic. We’ve become good friends.
“Hicks and I bonded right away. He has really been trying to groom me and polish me up a little bit. And (NBC producer) Tommy Roy has been trying to polish me up. I don’t get to work with Buck as much as I’d like. But when you look at who I’ve been able to work with, it’s mind-boggling.”
“Johnny (Miller) had such a long run,” Hicks said. “But Zinger stepped right in. It was an instantaneous bond. The chemistry, not only between Paul and me, but also with Roger and Gary and David Feherty, it couldn’t have been better.”
“I’m never going to be as cutting or sharp as some,” Azinger said. “When I first got in the chair, I thought, maybe I need to be tougher. Johnny was really tough, maybe I need to be that way. Now, I get criticized that I’m too tough and I get criticized for being too soft. All I can do is be who I am. My job is to give the viewer the perspective from inside the huddle, to let them know what it’s like to be in the situations these guys find themselves in.
“But I can still walk into the locker room, I’ll tell you that. I can still sit down and eat lunch with those guys. And I will. Now, I don’t want to know the names of their dogs or anything like that. But I do think it’s important to know them a little bit, enough to give an honest assessment.”
He gave an honest assessment last week when Patrick Reed needed a ruling on Friday. Standing in waist-high grass with the ball in his hand and an official on the way, Reed looked like another disaster waiting to happen. It turned out to be nothing – a routine drop from a penalty area – but Azinger, alluding to Reed’s recent rules controversy at the Hero World Challenge, summed up what everybody was thinking when he said, “It’s pretty important for Patrick Reed to get it right at this point in his career, and he’s going to have to get it right for a long time to come.”
“I’m comfortable now,” Azinger said. “It’s funny, my brother had never seen me in the booth. For him, it was a revelation that, ‘Wow, you really are in television.’ They don’t know me that way. They don’t see this side of me, even though I’ve been doing this since 2006.”
He had been offered the CBS Sports lead analyst job when Ken Venturi retired in 2002 but was still playing well enough to make a Ryder Cup team.
“When I got (the) ABC (job with Tirico and Nick Faldo), it was the right time. Then ABC faded out of golf. I stayed with ESPN when they kept those few events, but then they got out entirely. Just about the time (ESPN) lost the Open Championship, I got a call from Mark Loomis about the Fox job. Then when Johnny retired, it worked out timing-wise. It’s been amazing, really.
“The difficulty for me was how comfortable I’d gotten at home. I had to look at the schedule. But I’ve also been able to go to Australia for the first time in my life (last month for the Presidents Cup), which was incredible. And I’ll be going to Japan (for the Olympics) for the first time in my life. I mean, I didn’t have to think about it long but it caused some anxiety. I think I looked at it as a responsibility. I still do. I have a responsibility to get it right.”
Even at 60, Azinger still can be a big kid. He’s installed a synthetic chipping green under the porch at his home in Bradenton, Fla., and he loves trying to hook chip shots around the concrete pillars of his house. Last week during a break he couldn’t wait to show his brother a text message he received from Jim Nantz. But when the red camera light goes on, there’s nobody better.
“My goal is to be informative, to add value to the pictures the viewer can see on the screen,” he said. “But I also remember how hard golf is. The old adage is, the longer you’re in the booth the better you used to be. I think one of my strengths is, the longer I’m in the booth the more I wonder how I ever did it. I look at it and I’m like, ‘Gosh, I sometimes don’t know how I did it as a player.’ But I still remember what it took to prepare, what it look down the stretch to get it done.”
Then in a reflective moment, with two grandkids, both his daughters and sons-in-law back home in Florida, the voice of golf said, “I’m kind of like the guy with nine lives. I’ve always been an adrenaline junkie. I’ve been riding motorcycles for a long time. There’ve been a couple of times when I fell on the street and got hurt. Many times I’ve bit it off road and landed in the dirt. It’s just a blessing that I’m able to be here. When you get cancer at 33 and make it to 60, that’s pretty good.
“That really is a blessing. No doubt about it.”
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