Paul Azinger isn’t a native of Florida, but he is very much a product of it and owes his success in golf to having grown up in the Sunshine State.
“I wasn’t born here, but I’ve spent my life here, and that probably made all the difference in the direction my life has taken,” says Azinger, 59, who grew up in Sarasota and now lives in Bradenton, about 30 minutes south of Tampa, which is home to the IMG Pendleton School, a prep school and sports training facility that has produced the likes of 2010 U.S. Women’s Open champion Paula Creamer and 2010 U.S. Amateur champion Peter Uihlein.
Born in Holyoke, Mass., Azinger moved with his family to Sarasota when he was 4 years old. Ralph, his father, was a navigator in the U.S. Air Force who later opened a marina, and he put his son to work during the summers. Paul still found plenty of time for golf, however. It was inevitable with the family living adjacent to River Wilderness Club.
Though he was introduced to the game when he was 5, Azinger didn’t begin playing until he was around 10. “I used to just beat balls, which probably was a good thing,” he said. “I got into it slowly.
“I’ve always loved the game since I was a kid, but I never was obsessed with it,” he added. “But the opportunity I had to live in Florida was huge when I decided that golf was going to be the thing I was going to do, when I decided to go for golf hard-core, because I got it all. I could play year-round, experience different weather, learn to play in the wind and hit different shots. Florida was a great place to really learn how to play golf and learn how to score.”
Azinger turned professional in 1981 after attending Brevard Junior College and Florida State University, where he met his wife Toni. Just before moving to Tallahassee to play for the Seminoles, Azinger spent a summer working at Bay Hill Club in Orlando, where he was befriended by the owner, Arnold Palmer. When Azinger qualified for his first Masters in 1987, he played his first practice round with Palmer, the four-time winner and 1960 U.S. Open champion.
Golf icons Palmer and Jack Nicklaus moved from Pennsylvania and Ohio, respectively, to Florida in the 1960s. The march of great players uprooting to the Sunshine State has only increased with the likes of Greg Norman, Ernie Els, Nick Faldo, Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson, just to name a few, taking up residence in the southern-most part of the continental United States, joining Florida natives such as reigning two-time U.S. Open champion Brooks Koepka (West Palm Beach) and two-time Masters winner Bubba Watson (Bagdad).
Azinger said there is an even greater advantage to living in Florida now, compared to 50 years ago, and that is because the condition of the golf courses has improved dramatically.
“The one drawback here back then was the greens were notoriously slow, rolling maybe 8 or 9 [on the Stimpmeter]. Then one day someone figured out how to get greens really fast in Florida, and that change in agronomy was huge,” he says. “That was one of the biggest adjustments when I got on tour was figuring out how to putt, but that’s all been solved now. Greens in Florida now can be some of the fastest anywhere.”
Azinger figured things out just fine, however. He won 17 times as a professional, including 12 PGA Tour titles and one major, the 1993 PGA Championship at Inverness Club in Toledo, Ohio, where he defeated Norman in a playoff. At the time of that triumph, Azinger could barely lift his arm high enough to put his scorecard in his back pocket. Not long after, he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma in his right shoulder. Following six weeks of chemotherapy and radiation treatment, he was able to return to golf in August 1994 at the Buick Open. But he never was the same player, winning only one more time, at the 2000 Sony Open in Hawaii.
In a seven-year stretch starting in 1987, Azinger was ranked in the top 10 in the world for 292 weeks, 23rd all-time, with a career-high of fourth after his PGA triumph. He hasn’t competed in an official event since 2010, but he has found other outlets to remain involved in the game, including a turn in 2008 as winning captain of the USA Ryder Cup Team.
Additionally, he has flourished as a television golf analyst, a career that began in 2006 with ABC Sports and ESPN. Currently, he serves as lead analyst for Fox Sports on USGA championships as well as for NBC Sports, where he recently replaced longtime viewer favorite Johnny Miller.
Most of the golf he plays these days is at the Concession Golf Club in Bradenton, a course designed by Nicklaus, an eight-time USGA champion and Bob Jones Award winner, and former U.S. Open champion Tony Jacklin of England.
“I’ve really appreciated being a golfer growing up in the state and the opportunities I’ve had,” he says. “There have been a lot of great golfers here and a lot of players now come here to live and work on their games. There isn’t a better place for developing and maintaining your game between the quality of the courses and the weather.”
Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based freelance writer who frequently contributes to USGA websites.