- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 18, 2000

GAINESVILLE, Va. Paul Azinger is back in his favorite fraternity.
For most of the players assembled at the Robert Trent Jones Golf Club this week, the Presidents Cup means serious stress the gut-scraping madness unique to team match-play competition. But for Azinger, the chance to spend a week with 11 pals playing patriotic firebrand on the course and U.S. team jester off it is pure ecstasy.
"I'm so happy to be here I can't even explain it," said Azinger, whom U.S. captain Ken Venturi picked with one of his captain's selections in August. "I was so glad Kenny picked me. I was so excited about it. And then [Monday] night, we were hanging out in the team room and Kenny was talking to us and after all that was done, I went back to my room and told my wife, 'Gosh, I'm so glad I'm here. It's just awesome. It's just so cool.' "
It's been seven years since Azinger played on one of Uncle Sam's squads, representing his country and cavorting among his cronies in a team room. In 1993, Azinger was one of the world's top three players. Fresh off the first of what most assumed would be several major championship victories (1993 PGA), Azinger helped spur the United States to victory in his third consecutive Ryder Cup at the Belfry. At the time he was 33, on top of his game and a spiritual staple on U.S. teams. Then came cancer.
Days after completing his most successful season on Tour, Azinger was diagnosed with lymphoma in his right shoulder. What followed was chemotherapy, radiation and an entire season (1994) lost in the prime of his career. Azinger eventually whipped the disease and returned to the Tour, but his first-class form forgot to follow.
From 1995 to 1999, Azinger finished 100th, 95th, 93rd, 50th and 73rd on the money list, fighting a balky putter through five forgettable, winless seasons. That skein of futility finally broke earlier this season in Hawaii, when Azinger claimed his first post-cancer victory. Zinger was back, a fact he cemented by making 16 consecutive cuts and recording six top-10 finishes as the season progressed. The capper came in August just after the PGA Championship, when Venturi announced he was adding Azinger to his Presidents Cup roster.
"There was a time when I never thought I would make it back to any kind of competition like this," said the 40-year-old Azinger, who finished 25th on the money list this season. "But I played pretty well this year. My goal this year was simple: to go to every tournament as the most committed guy there. Even when I was playing my best, it was coming easy to me. But now the level of commitment is greater… . Usually at 40, if you have played lousy for four straight years, you don't really care as much. But it's been really cool to play good again."
Nobody was happier about Azinger's renaissance than Venturi. The U.S. captain carefully watched what happened at last year's Ryder Cup in Brookline, Mass. Venturi no doubt saw that while Tiger Woods, David Duval and Phil Mickelson might have been the expected stars, Payne Stewart, Hal Sutton and Tom Lehman wore the sergeant's stripes for the Yanks in their monumental comeback. When Stewart died in an air accident just a month after the event, Venturi knew he had to find a similar spiritual leader for his Presidents Cup team. Azinger, Stewart's closest friend and a fiery competitor cum cut-up like Stewart, provided a perfect solution.
"Paul is the ultimate team player," said Venturi. "I knew when I chose him he would give me everything he had. I'm really happy that there's been absolutely no backlash or criticism over his selection."
Azinger arrived at RTJ perhaps expecting to find a somewhat lifeless U.S. team. It was this lack of emotion that has been largely credited with the beating the U.S. team absorbed from the spunky Internationals (20 and 1/2 to 11 and 1/2) in the 1998 Presidents Cup at Royal Melbourne. Azinger was "pleasantly surprised" by the enthusiasm he found among his U.S. teammates. But like Lehman, a fellow veteran of the Presidents/ Ryder Cup wars, Azinger knows the International team has already found the family formula.
"They have a terrific team," said Azinger. "There is a genuine chemistry there among [the Internationals] that we have to develop. And chemistry is for real.
"The pressure is on this team right now. There is a certain amount of freedom that these guys feel on our team based on the fact that they did not lose the Ryder Cup. Someone asked if we would feel more pressure if we had lost the Ryder Cup. I would say definitely, definitely. But you know what? The pressure's still there, because these guys didn't just nip this team the last time they slaughtered them."
Azinger downplayed his role as team leader yesterday. But after just one day of serious practice, Azinger was already the most outspoken U.S. player. The irony of Azinger's pairing with play-for-pay proponent Woods during a practice round yesterday was overlooked by few observers. And the absence of Stewart, a man cut from the same part ham, part hammer cloth, certainly wasn't overlooked by Azinger.
"I knew coming up here that Payne wouldn't be here, and I thought about the void there still," said Azinger. "It's still hard to imagine. I'm sure it probably weighs heavier on my mind than it does on some of these other guys that he's not here… . He was just such a joker. There was a lot of fun associated with his being there, and that will be missed.
"[But my wife and I] brought a couple of games with us. We'll have a good time in the team room. We had some good laughs last night. It was really good to see the level of enthusiasm that was brought in there… . I don't feel like I need to be a strong voice. Ken Venturi is the leader of this team, and I think we all look to Kenny for wisdom. I want to play well. That's all I want to do. If somebody needs encouragement, Stewart Cink or Notah Begay, or insight, I can volunteer that, I guess. But I just want to lead with my clubs."

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