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.
``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.''
Azinger, built like a 2-iron at 6 ft. 2 in. and 170 lbs., considers his iron play his best suit. But as Dan Forsman put it after barely losing to him at Hartford: ``When you're playing as well as Paul is, you have no weakness. He has a great putting stroke, especially on the critical short ones. You have the feeling he's going to make every putt he really needs.''
Azinger, by his own admission playing too conservatively the last day at Hartford, sank a tense seven-footer to win on the final hole.
``A putt like that tells me I'm not a choker,'' he says. ``I made a 25-footer to eagle the last hole in Vegas. People have to respect that.''
That is as close to immodesty as the polite, appreciative Azinger gets. There is no jaded professionalism about him despite his long apprenticeship and the grind of weekly tournament travel.
``Pro golfers are spoiled - all of us,'' he admits. ``I just feel lucky to be where I am. I had some tough years getting here, but my wife, Toni, kept encouraging me, and I was always thrilled to be playing golf for a living.''
Azinger says this with the unbridled zest of a kid next door who just got his first baseball glove for Christmas. His wide-eyed exuberance never seems to wane, and he vows he won't let success change him.
``Certainly I'm not a great player yet,'' he adds. ``I'm not sure what it takes to be great. I see a tremendously intense look on the faces of guys like Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson and Raymond Floyd. They concentrate every minute they're at the course. I need to develop more of that intensity and always focus on the positive - never on the negative.''
His friends say he's still improving. They call him ``Zinger.'' And he's certainly zinging the PGA Tour pretty well so far this year.
As for the PGA, the course is a long one with a lot of sand, which should suit Paul's game. He's a fairly strong hitter, and last year he led the tour in sand saves, or the ability to get down in two shots from a bunker.
Another probable contender is Curtis Strange, who has won two tournaments in the last month. And of course there will be the usual array of big names such as Nicklaus, Watson, Norman, etc.
The defending champion is Bob Tway, who holed out from a bunker on the last hole to beat Norman a year ago. Also to be watched are the winners of this year's other majors - Masters champion Larry Mize, US Open winner Scott Simpson, and Faldo.
Unless one of this trio should emerge on top, this will be the fifth year in a row in which a different player has won each of the four major titles. Tom Watson, who won the US and British opens in 1982, was the last double winner in the same year. In fact, 18 different players have won the 18 majors starting with the 1983 US Open and continuing through this year's British Open.
Holding this midsummer event in Florida raised a few eyebrows, but the reason is easy enough to understand when you realize that the site is the PGA National Golf Club, home course of the sponsoring organization.
The contrast should be as extreme as imaginable from the chilly winds and rain of Scotland. Conditions will be the same for everyone, of course, but some individuals handle such weather better than others. Thus this year's winner will be not only the one who comes up with the right shots, but also the one who can best withstand the heat and humidity throughout the 72-hole event.