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Golf : Azinger Puts Money Worries Aside and Becomes a Winner

May 10, 1987|Jerry Crowe

It didn't hit him until about two days later.

"I was standing in the shower this morning, thinking about it," Paul Azinger said by phone from Irving, Tex., where he is playing this weekend in the Byron Nelson tournament. "I made twice as much money in one tournament as I did in my first three years on the tour combined."

Azinger rolled in a 25-foot eagle putt over a hump on the par-5, 524-yard 18th hole last Sunday at the Las Vegas Country Club and won the $1.3-million Panasonic Las Vegas Invitational, the richest tournament on the PGA Tour.

Winner's share: $225,000.

Said Azinger: "I picked the right one to win, didn't I?"

Sure did.

The previous two Panasonic winners, Greg Norman last year and Curtis Strange in 1985, went on to lead the Tour in earnings. And now Azinger leads the money list with earnings of $442,460.

"I never expected it to go quite this well," he said.

This has been a break-through year for the fifth-year pro from Bradenton, Fla., who was 29th on the money list last year with earnings of $254,019, but didn't win his first tournament until January at the Phoenix Open.

The victory made Azinger, 27, a little less anonymous.

"Until you win tournaments, people don't notice," he told the Arizona Republic.

Azinger said the difference between this year and last, when he finished second twice, is that he is less affected by the pressure.

"I think once a person gets over the financial worries, the only pressure you feel is to win the golf tournament, no matter how big the purse," he said.

So, as he stood over his ball on the 18th green last Sunday, the worth of the putt never entered his mind, Azinger said.

"If I had been thinking that it was a $225,000 putt, I probably couldn't have pulled my putter back," he said. "I might have chunked it."

Azinger didn't worry too much about chunking any putts while growing up in Florida.

He worked at his father's marina, scraping and painting boat bottoms, and all but gave up golf for a few years when he was a teen-ager.

"None of my friends played," he said, adding that he didn't break 70 until his second year at Brevard Junior College in Cocoa, Fla. "I wasn't that good."

He got better at Brevard, where Coach Jim Suttie introduced him to John Redman, a teaching pro based in Orlando.

"The golf coach had a video camera," Azinger said. "I hit a lot of balls and saw myself on film a lot. I saw where I needed to improve and, fortunately, I improved pretty quick."

He stuck with Redman, continued on to Florida State and earned his Tour card in 1982. He won $119,655 in his first three years on the tour and had his best year in 1986, although he never won.

He led late in the final round of the Shearson Lehman Brothers Andy Williams Open in San Diego, but double-bogeyed the 16th hole and wound up tied for third.

"I choked," he later told Tom Friend of The Times.

Now, he said, he is better for the experience.

"I don't forget about those things but I don't make the same mistakes again," he said. "I play a lot smarter."

Azinger credits his rise to Redman, who told him before this season that he was good enough to lead the tour in earnings, and an unnamed struggling pro who motivated him, he said, by disparaging him.

"He kept reminding me that I wasn't any good," Azinger said of his rival, whom he declined to name. "He kept beating me, but I kept wanting to beat him, so I kept working. He could have made me want to quit, too, but he didn't. He really helped motivate me."

His victory last week would seem to call for a toast, but Azinger hasn't had a drink in three years.

"I just can't afford to feel a little different from one morning to the next," he said. "So, why should I drink? I'm not against drinking--I did my share in college--but I'm taking things more seriously now. It doesn't do me any good. I don't need a few beers to have a good time."

He needs to be especially sharp now, he said, because winning brings on added responsibility.

"You're aware that people might be watching you," he said.

That's especially true if you've just won $225,000.

Jan Stephenson, feeling fortunate that she wasn't hurt more seriously, is at home this weekend in Phoenix, recuperating from injuries she suffered in an automobile accident last weekend at Pinnellas Park, Fla.

Jay Burton, a spokesman for International Management Group, which represents Stephenson, said she is "catching up on her reading" and is in good spirits.

"She feels very, very fortunate to have gotten out alive," Burton said. "She told me that she and her husband went back to the car the next day and were shocked at the amount of damage. The car was totaled.

"They still can't figure out how she came out with such minor injuries."

Stephenson, 35, was driving through Pinnellas Park, about six miles north of St. Petersburg, at 7:30 last Saturday night when another vehicle went through a red light and slammed into her 1987 Buick, police said.

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