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Azinger puts British Open near-miss behind him, seeks PGA title

By Jack LongworthSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / August 5, 1987

Now that he knows what it's like to contend for a major championhsip Paul Azinger thinks he's ready to win one - maybe even this week. In his first big opportunity last month, Azinger effectively blew the British Open by bogeying the last two holes. It was a disappointment, of course, but he counts it as a learning experience that should pay dividends in the future. And he'd like nothing better than to start collecting them at the PGA Championship, the last major of the year, which is being played Thursday through Sunday in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.

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``Don't feel sorry for me,'' Azinger says of his loss to Nick Faldo at Scotland's famous Muirfield course three weeks ago. ``I should have won the tournament, but I was on center stage and proved I belong there. I want to win major championships more than anything, and that's why I'm going to be a great player.

``At the beginning I just wanted to know what it would be like to have a chance in a major,'' he continued. ``I got to know, and I learned a lot. Now I think I'm ready to win one.''

Azinger, who had been having a fine year even before his near-miss at Muirfield, certainly has to be considered one of the favorites at this week's tournament.

Even before the British Open, in fact, Paul was easily the game's most successful unknown of the year.

A refreshingly enthusiastic 27-year-old from Holyoke, Mass., Azinger is the only golfer on the PGA Tour who has won three tournaments this season: Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Hartford. He has earned almost $600,000 in prize money to threaten Greg Norman's record of $653,296 set last year.

So where did Azinger come from?

Mostly he has emerged from a long, strenuous struggle. In this day and age of instant success or nothing, he has been uncommonly patient and persevering.

He couldn't break 80 in high school. In college at Florida State he won a couple of tournaments, but nobody labeled him a player to watch.

He qualified for his tour card in 1981, but played poorly and lost it. In '82 he failed to qualify, and in '83 he played mini-tours, far out of the national limelight.

He gained confidence and requalified, but still barely met expenses in '84 and '85. He made a a quiet breakthrough last year, nearly winning twice and making $254,000. And now he has a chance to compile a memorable record before the current year is over.

``My career has been amazing,'' he says. ``Really amazing.''

Azinger shares the credit for his dramatic improvement with two teachers, Jim Suttie and John Redman.

``Jim started working with me in 1979 and I got better so fast I couldn't believe it,'' Azinger says. ``My scoring average dropped from 77 to 72 that year.''

Both instructors have been astute enough to leave Azinger's unorthodox natural swing alone. His grip is unusually strong, or turned more to his right and under the club handle.

Azinger contends that his strong grip helps him make a strong shoulder turn on his backswing, which leads to a powerful but controlled downswing. He hooks the ball from right to left, and believes his way of playing would help the average golfer, who tends to slice the ball from left to right and lose power.

``I used to be self-conscious about my grip,'' Azinger says, ``but not anymore. It helped me to see that players like Seve Ballesteros and Bernhard Langer have strong grips, too. If you let your arms hang naturally at your sides, they probably will be in a so-called strong position. Then you simply put them on the club that way.''