The rain was running in gray sheets outside the Holiday Inn in Flint, Mich., last Thursday, and Paul Azinger was in his room, nervously pacing the carpet. "I've been waiting nine months," he said. Now his first round back on the PGA Tour, at the Buick Open, had been delayed a day because of the weather.
Azinger thought about that early December day when Dr. Frank Jobe called him into his office in Inglewood, Calif., and said, "It's not good.... You have lymphoma." He thought about the call to his parents in Florida and how his mother had repeatedly said that she wanted to take the cancer from his body and put it in hers. He thought about his hair coming out in clumps and the awful retching after the chemotherapy treatments. Then he realized, What's another 24 hours?
Azinger chilled out and went to two movies—Clear and Present Danger and Speed. Two days later he missed the cut. But that didn't matter. He was back, and there was no cancer in his right shoulder. "The victory for me this week," he said, "was teeing off on that first hole."
That moment came on Friday, Aug. 5, at 12:49 p.m. It came at Warwick Hills Golf & Country Club on a day that felt like a football Saturday in early October. It came 247 days after Jobe had told him there was a 90% chance he would be cured, and minutes after he had passed a young boy and his dad en route to the 10th tee, where he would begin his round. The child had asked what cancer was, and the father had tried to explain.
The fans at the 10th hole were packed in rows down both sides of the fairway, eager to welcome home a man who had been fighting a killer disease. "This is like playing with Arnold Palmer," Ben Crenshaw said of the huge ovation that greeted his playing partner.
"From Bradenton, Florida," announcer Randy Burton intoned, "please welcome back to the game Paul Azinger." In the applause that followed, Azinger's eyes turned into water hazards. He tipped his straw hat and sucked air into his lungs, but gaining composure wasn't quite that simple. He hadn't been this nervous in the playoff with Greg Norman at last year's PGA Championship. This was different from staring down the Shark, and it was bigger than a major championship.
As Azinger stood over his golf ball, the golf world stood silent, holding its breath. On the putting green Lanny Wadkins and others stopped to take in the moment. Azinger took his trademark Harley Davidson biker grip, twisting his hands until they were at full throttle on the driver. When he swung, the ball bisected the fairway. "Way to go, Zing!" a man yelled.
"We all wanted to watch him tee off," said Wadkins, "to see if he was going to hit a bad one, so we could give him grief about it. He probably felt how amateurs do when they play in pro-ams. I'm sure he was glad to get that first shot over with."
After the round Azinger would confirm Wadkins's suspicion. "I didn't want to hit a heel hook into the crowd and kill somebody," he said.
Walking up that first fairway with Crenshaw and the third player in their group, Corey Pavin, Azinger was almost blushing. "Corey told me my eyes started sweating," Azinger would report.
His second shot, an eight-iron, was as pure as his first—a patented Zinger knockdown that never rose more than 30 feet. It stopped 20 feet from the pin. Strolling up to the green, Azinger spotted a friend, Tom Lehman, on the adjacent 9th fairway. Azinger doffed his hat to show off his buzz-cut-length coif, and Lehman blew him a kiss.
"I missed seeing that seven-iron leave on that perfect trajectory loaded up with spin and stop in there next to the hole," Azinger said later of his time away from the Tour. "I missed hitting those wedges knee high to a grasshopper and whipping them in there pin high. I missed what it feels like to hit a shot dead-on, when you don't even hear the ball."
Azinger heard the ball all too often at the Buick. On Friday he three-putted his second hole and played his first nine in 41 strokes, four over par. His first birdie of the year came on his fourth hole, the par-5 13th. He would make six bogeys, shoot 76 and brag that he had scored better than 12 other players in the 155-man field.
On Saturday he birdied three straight holes, but he would have needed three more birds to make the cut in the tournament, which was won by Fred Couples, who himself was returning from a four-month layoff caused by a bad back. For Azinger's last 27 holes he was two under. After shooting 70, he told his wife, Toni, "If I could've putted, I would have made the cut easy."
They both decided it was just as well that he hadn't. Going 36 holes on Sunday would have sapped his strength, and he knew he would need all of it to play in the anticipated 100° heat in Tulsa at this week's PGA Championship.
Azinger had worried that battling cancer might take away his edge. It has certainly caused him to rearrange his priorities: Winning on the golf course no longer means everything. Still, he does want to win again, even this year. That would keep intact a streak of seven years with a victory, currently the longest run on the PGA Tour. "When I was sick, that streak was meaningless to me," Azinger said. "But it definitely means something now."
When he completed chemotherapy treatments in May, his legs were so weak that doing three sets of 10 leg lifts with a 10-pound weight was a struggle. But five weeks of work with a personal trainer transformed Azinger from a recovering cancer patient into a fit athlete who can skip rope like a boxer and pound out 30 minutes on a stair machine.
Furthermore, five days of radiation a week for five weeks was a breeze compared with the six chemotherapy treatments he had had in as many months. The radiation weakened him, but he didn't get sick or depressed, and his hair even started to grow in. By the end of June his eyebrows and lashes had come back. Best of all, he could touch his neck and shoulders without feeling lumps. "The radiation was very specific," Azinger says. "Whatever was in there before is not in there anymore. It was definitely hammered."
The only setback occurred in late June, when doctors found a section of fatty tissue, which was feared to be a tumor, on Azinger's lower back, near his left hip. They removed the lump and found it free of cancer. The surgery, though, caused Azinger to miss his scheduled return to the Tour at the New England Classic on July 21. He had hoped to defend his title at that event, but the fact that he had to back out may have been a blessing too.
"It takes four full weeks to recover after radiation," Azinger said in the locker room at Warwick Hills after making a trip to the Tour's fitness trailer to ice his shoulder and stretch his back. "My shoulder had the full time period to recover. Coming back for New England could have been a little quick. Maybe I would have gotten tendinitis in there."
As Azinger spoke, he stood in front of a locker plastered with welcome-back notes. Outside, Toni waited patiently. "This is my element," Azinger said. "It's where I want to be. Our life is getting back to normal. This is normal for us—not sitting at home with nothing to do."
Azinger now knew he could go to Southern Hills and be introduced as the reigning PGA champion. For most of a year it had seemed as if he might be cheated out of that honor. Now he has a chance to be an inspiration to a group of people who cling to smaller percentages than he was given. He can hit that seven-iron loaded up with spin, fire a wedge knee high to a grasshopper, strike those pure shots that can't be heard.
It all hit Azinger as he sat on a locker room bench and an obscure touring pro named Jim Woodward reached down to shake his hand. "Now it's official," Woodward said. "You played golf again, man."
Azinger's comeback was made easier by supportive fans, physical therapists and his wife and mother (above, left and right).