Paul Azinger was talking all the way from the Oakmont Country Club practice range to the first tee, looking for a Nassau to make the match interesting. It was April and the site of the 116th U.S.Open was coming to life.
At the tee, he rifles through his bag, pulling out balls, tees, a divot-repair tool … then rises from the bag. “Hey fellas, check this out,” he exclaims and wedges a 1994 U.S. Open hat onto his noggin. Azinger didn’t play in Ernie Els’ coming-out party that year; he was busy fighting lymphoma.
Azinger has never shied away from a challenge. He was no blue-chip prospect, going from Brevard Junior College to Florida State with a handmade swing; he and his wife, Toni, were undaunted by six winless years on the PGA Tour before it all clicked. From 1987 to 1993, Azinger’s steely determination was rewarded with 11 Tour victories, including the 1993 PGA Championship, where he beat Greg Norman in a playoff. Azinger won again, in the 2000 Sony Open. But in 2005, he began a broadcasting career with ABC/ESPN. He was a straight talker who had fun, never shied away from a debate and always took the audience inside the moment that was unfolding on the course.
Now, 11 years later, he was on the tee at Oakmont with Mark Loomis, Fox Sports’ coordinating producer, who first hired him at ABC. They were teeing it up with Joe Buck and Brad Faxon, preparing for Fox’s second year broadcasting USGA championships. They would eventually be joined on the course by Curtis Strange. A month later, they were calling the action at the U.S. Amateur Four-Ball Championship. Their on-air chemistry was obvious, owed largely to their off-air camaraderie. When the Four-Ball broadcast was over, the foursome was waiting behind the 18th green of Winged Foot Golf Club’s East Course to catch matches that weren’t broadcast. Azinger, front and center with his new crew, there among the golf fans – in the moment. He took time out during preparations for the Open broadcast to answer nine questions:
You pulled out that ’94 Open hat. Was there significance to breaking it out or did you just find it at home?
There was no significance because I missed that Open, but because I do collect a lot of stuff. I am especially a hat hoarder. [Laughing] I am not ashamed of it … it’s not like they are shoes. They’re only $26 or something.
Starting with the U.S. Amateur Four-Ball Championship at Winged Foot, you have natural rapport with Joe, Curtis and Brad. What do you expect for this year’s Open broadcast? That is the goal. We need to make it feel like we are together every week. We all believe that there is a fundamentally correct way to make a golf broadcast. You don’t need us just flapping our gums… It will be structured around the images. Fox pushes the envelope with technologies, which make the broadcast really cool. But from the booth, it is simple. We let the picture be descriptive and won’t tell you what you are already seeing. Instead, we will have structure with our broadcast – hole announcer goes first, followed by Joe and then me or whoever, all dedicated to enhancing the action. And there will be action at Oakmont!
Can these young guns continue to win on these historic courses in Open conditions?
The moment is so big. Winning a U.S. Open is the pinnacle of golf. Winning it on a course like Oakmont is just special. I was just a baby when Jack Nicklaus beat Arnold Palmer at Oakmont in 1962. But I have read about it and watched video of it. I asked Jack about it. He said he won it in spite of himself, because he didn’t completely realize what it took, especially in Arnold’s back yard. Today, everybody knows everything. These young guys are so prepared. It’s Oakmont. The most prepared golfers will do well.
What does Oakmont do to the players?
Oh, it is such a hard course and there is much to learn about it. So the anxiety is real, for most of the field. I am not sure that the new “Big Three” feel it, necessarily, which gives them a slight edge. The players can’t wait to get here, to practice on this course, to see what they’ve been reading and studying about. Then they see how hard it is, and think, “Did I get hear early enough to prepare?” I have an opinion that, as a player, you can respect Oakmont because it’s so hard. But it is hard to love it the way you do a course that lets you get to 19-under for the week. That’s what makes Johnny Miller’s 63 so special. Players can’t count on that magic; they have to be ready to fight.
What are the keys at Oakmont?
Every shot has to have a measure of integrity, but I believe it starts with the tee shot. If it’s not in play, you have no shot at putting yourself in a position to succeed. These aren’t the most receptive greens, so it would be a smart play to aim for the middle of the greens. Length won’t be the most important factor. When I was playing, the guys who were top 10 in driving distance lost their playing cards. Today, the top 10 in driving distance, for the most part, are also the top 10 on the money list.
Is it time to stop obsessing about Tiger?
I understand why everyone focuses on him, but the game will do just fine without Tiger, just like it did without Hogan, then Arnold, then Jack, then Norman. We are all being robbed of Tiger’s longevity, which is the key to breaking the records he was trending toward. He may very well be done, but we should embrace what he’s done, period, without condition. Now, if he comes back will be determined more by whether he is driven to show off more than he is afraid to have embarrassing moments.
You built your own swing, you are the ultimate dig-it-out-of-the-dirt guy. Often the field looks the same…
You know what? Let’s take a look at some of these top players, because it’s not as cookie-cutter as people want to believe. Jason Day didn’t start killing it until he started fluttering his eyes and zoned in on every shot. Jordan Spieth has got that funky left elbow. Rory McIlroy isn’t exactly your textbook swing. Bubba… Hell, I don’t even know what that is! No player has ever put their left wrist in the position that Dustin Johnson does. They don’t have the classic swings, but they work so hard, have a great feel for their games and are pretty self-aware. We are in awe of the way they hit the ball and we should embrace how differently they all go about getting great results.