News & Opinion

Azinger’s plan: ‘Keep calling it like it is’

Paul Azinger
Paul Azinger

SARASOTA, Fla. – On a brutally hot October afternoon at Gator Creek Golf Club near the Gulf Coast, Paul Azinger – officially named Monday to replace Johnny Miller in the booth at NBC – is doing what he loves to do. He is standing on the practice tee, wearing shorts, an untucked shirt and a bucket hat, imparting advice to an aspiring young pro. There’s an energy about Azinger, as well as a certain wisdom that led him to 12 PGA Tour victories, including the 1993 PGA Championship. He always has been a quick thinker on his feet.

Paul Azinger

Days earlier, Azinger, 58, approached a member who was wearing himself out on the practice tee and asked him what he was trying to accomplish. For background, the ninth hole at Gator Creek is an easy par 4, a birdie opportunity, but for whatever reason, the member cannot hit that fairway, always spraying it right. Back to Azinger’s question: What are you doing out here? “I’m standing on the driving range,” the member said to Azinger, “pretending I’m on the ninth tee.” Azinger paused, then offered an idea. “Why don’t you go out to the ninth tee,” he said, “and pretend you’re on the driving range?”

Azinger, who will do the men’s and women’s U.S. Opens for Fox, is scheduled to join NBC after Miller, part of the NBC team for 29 years, steps down Feb. 3 in Phoenix. His first scheduled NBC event will be the WGC-Mexico Championship in late February. Azinger worked the Ryder Cup for NBC as a one-off in 1995, then joined the golf team at ABC (and later ESPN) for its golf telecasts, beginning in 2005. I joined Azinger for some chicken gumbo and a one-on-one interview inside the Gator Creek clubhouse. Here are some of Azinger’s thoughts on joining NBC, the state of the game, Tiger Woods’ resurgence, and why Azinger didn’t take to senior golf:

Jeff Babineau: You’ll be following a legend at NBC in 2019 in taking Johnny Miller’s spot in the booth. What are your thoughts about this move?

Paul Azinger: Johnny had been talking about retiring for a couple of years, maybe three years; he was starting to think about it and consider it. I had just signed a three-year deal with Fox. I got a couple calls from a couple of folks at NBC inquiring. If anything ever did come up, was it something that I would have no interest in, or would I have interest? And my answer was that I would never rule anything like that out. I thought that was a pretty good answer.

I’m not trying to fill Johnny’s shoes. You can’t fill those shoes. I’m different than him. I’m just going to go for being me. It’s got me this far, right? I’ll stir it up. I’ll say stuff. It’ll just pop up, like it does when I’m giving a lesson. But I’m not looking to carve my own path. I’m just looking to fit in. They’ve already established what they’ve got there. These guys are all experts. There are no newbies in there … well, a couple, maybe. Bones [Jim Mackay, the former caddie turned announcer], I’ve known him since he was 15 or 16 years old. I used to play the minis [mini-tours] over in Daytona Beach, and Bones was over there at one of those courses. I’ve known him forever. Notah [Begay III] used to do homework with my girls when we were home-schooling them. He’d go in there and eat a sandwich and be doing homework at the same time with Sarah Jean [Azinger’s oldest daughter]. Roger [Maltbie], I played against Roger. I played against Gary Koch. I played with Peter [Jacobsen] and against him. [David] Feherty? I beat him in a playoff once [to win the European Tour’s 1990 BMW International Open], and I’ve done his show a couple of times. Dan Hicks. I don’t know how you improve on Dan Hicks. There’s an upper echelon, and once you’re there, you’re all kind of tied. [Jim] Nantz and Hicks, and [Joe] Buck. For golf, that’s just the way it is. I’ve been really lucky. Mike Tirico, Joe Buck, Dick Enberg? You know, I called the Ryder Cup in 1995, on the fairway and in the booth, with Johnny and Dick Enberg. Tommy Roy [longtime producer at NBC] asked me to do that when I didn’t make the team. It was awesome. So fun. It was easy as pie.

Give [Mark] Loomis [formerly at ABC, now at Fox, and the man who hired Azinger at ABC] credit. He and Mike Pearl, an ABC exec, hired me and [Nick] Faldo. Loomis had the vision. And we’re the two lead analysts in golf. We’re still here, 10 or 12 years after he stuck his neck out, really. It worked.

JB: You have relationships with a lot of players. Can it be difficult sometimes to be honest in the booth?

PA: I just want to know how a player thinks. I think we know pretty much how everybody thinks. I’m not sure if I know what they are thinking. What is Jack [Nicklaus] thinking, that he can do that over and over? What was [Lee] Trevino thinking? It couldn’t have been the same. They all knew how to think, how to play, how to prepare, how to work their mind.… I’m going to focus on that in the booth, as much as anything. I just want the viewer to have just a little bit of insight as to what a player could be thinking or feeling, how he evaluates a situation. Is he going faster than normal? Has he slowed way down? Did you see that look in his eyes? Hey, Tommy, can you play that face back, whatever it is? I want to be a keen observer. I do not want to tell you what you just saw. Ever. Sometimes you have to. But I don’t want to tell anybody what they just saw.

JB: Have you had a chance to talk to Johnny?

PA: I talked to him for about 15-20 minutes. I asked him a lot of questions. I asked him about Tommy Roy. I wanted to know about Tommy Randolph [also in NBC production] … What is Dan Hicks like? All that. You’ve got to high-praise Johnny, because he’s done it for a long time, and Johnny would tell it like it is. Johnny had this ability to inflect his voice; he’d be saying stuff you disagreed with, but because of the way he inflected it, you weren’t so sure. He was an influencer. We phone-tagged, and we talked. We have a lot in common, really, but I’m not Johnny. I’m different than Johnny. He told me, ‘You keep calling it like it is.’ And that’s what I plan on doing.

JB: What are your thoughts on the modern game and the modern Tour player?

PA: I marvel at the modern game. I can’t believe that it’s played the way they play it, so high in the air. I think our generation was taught that golf was meant to be played close to the ground. You had high-ball hitters, and those always seemed to be the best players. In my generation, and the generation right before me, [Tom] Watson hit it miles high. He could hit it as high as he wanted, but Watson could also hit his long irons high and his short irons low. So could Jack [Nicklaus]. So could Tiger [Woods]. He played that game up in the air, but he flighted it all over the place. Now it just seems it’s primarily all about launch off the tee, to optimize your distance. That turned out to be an epic fail [for U.S. players] at the Ryder Cup, because that course just wasn’t set up that way. If you wanted to do anything to nullify that part of the game, or to change that part of the game, I think it’s at great risk. To me, the game is as exciting as it’s ever been, the fact that they’re willing to play that way. If you put the ball in the air for eight or nine seconds, that takes guts. You can make a mockery of a hole, but you can make a double, or triple, or X on that hole, too. I just think it’s brave.

I played below the tops of the trees, and I stayed below the tops of the trees. And I had long stretches where I could hit my long irons in the air – two or three or four years – and I did damage. Ordinarily, I was a very average-to-low-height long-iron player. These major guys now … Dustin Johnson can hit it so high; Jason Day can hit it so high; even Jordan Spieth. Rory [McIlroy] hits it so high. It’s hard to defend against that. It’s hard to hide a pin, because they can all knock it down, too. So, the formula for greatness is hitting your long irons high, and your short irons low. And then bring that putter.

JB: You look at all the great young players, and now you have a 42-year-old Tiger Woods back in the mix, seemingly healthy once again. What does his presence add?

PA: I feel so lucky, so fortunate. I can’t believe that Tiger is back on the scene. I thought that was it, but I never ruled him out. On ESPN, when I was doing that, any interviews I had – radio, podcasts – it was, ‘’Zinger, is Tiger done?’ I’d say, ‘Man, Tiger could replace that knee and still win tournaments.’ Now, with a fused back? I have to admit – and I never said it publicly, but I’m thinking – this probably is going to be it. His back is fused. Turns out, it’s not it. I never wrote Tiger off. I had to be hard on him sometimes. That’s what ESPN demanded, that I be honest. Candid. He probably doesn’t like me for it, but what are you going to do? I was on at the British Open and said something about him being a middle-of-the-pack hack, and it was in every paper in the world. I just said he doesn’t like being a middle-of-the-pack hack. [Mike] Tirico [his broadcast partner] agreed with me. But the headline was “Azinger calls Tiger a middle-of-the-pack hack.” So, all the Tiger lovers hate me, and Tiger probably doesn’t like me, either. But I’ll laugh with him about it, probably.

I mean, is the game 20 percent better with Tiger? Fifty percent better with Tiger? I almost think it’s a 100-percent better product with Tiger. I look at the PGA Tour, and I think that the Tour is a two-show pony: Tiger is one and a half, and the rest are a half. It’s the truth. That scene at the Tour Championship [when Woods waded through the masses to get to the 18th green]? That’s one of the greatest scenes. I loved watching that as a fan. How do you define that draw capability?

JB: I think a lot of people were surprised that when you turned 50, you didn’t get out there and embrace the Champions Tour. Didn’t you have the urge to compete at that level?

PA: I don’t want to compete.

JB: Did that surprise you?

PA: Yeah, I was surprised by it. Shocked by it, really. I think what happened, honestly, is that the Ryder Cup [in 2008, when he was the winning captain] was such a mountaintop feeling for me, that it took a little air out. Once the air was out, I didn’t practice very long, and I didn’t practice very well, and I wasn’t hitting it for diddly. I was dreading it. Just dreading it. Dread is like anxiety. I told Toni [his wife], I’m feeling dread these first two or three events. I’m going to change my attitude. If I feel dread these next couple, I’ll quit. I played three more. Dread, dread, dread. I said, I’m not doing that to myself. If I don’t play, I’m not going to have that dread. So, I was done. I wasn’t good enough to compete. I looked down that driving range one day at Newport Beach, up against the chain-link fence down the left side. I’m hitting it terrible. Every guy on the Tour is out there. Steve Pleis is caddieing for me. I said, ‘Come here, Slim. Do me a favor. Walk 3 yards out there, look down that driving range and tell me what you see.’ He said, ‘I see a lot of old players, and you ought to be kicking their ass!’ We busted out laughing. I said, ‘That’s not what I see. I see Hall of Famers who are more committed than me. This isn’t going to last.’

My whole thing was about being the most prepared, most committed. That’s your only chance. Jason Day thinks he is the most prepared, most committed. So does Rory McIlroy. So does Jordan Spieth. So does Justin Thomas. So does Tiger Woods. Every one of them. If you’re going in there and you don’t think you’re the most prepared, and you get caught off-guard, you’re probably not going to win. Some guys come in and realize they have a chance to win, and they can bow up. But I guarantee you, every guy out there thinks they’re out preparing the field. I used to think that [Nick] Faldo was out-preparing me. So, I’d just do what he was doing. It’s not that hard to figure out.

JB: You’re going to work the Masters for BBC, the U.S. Open for Fox and the British Open for NBC. I would think you found it pretty cool that Fox let this all happen …

PA: Well, I think it’s pretty cool of NBC to let it happen, as much as it is Fox. NBC was at a place where, they weren’t very happy about losing the U.S. Open [to Fox], I don’t think, so for them to allow me to stay there … for me, it’s pretty humbling that they would both want me to do it. And it’s a privilege, isn’t it? What a privilege to be able to call players in their walk to history, to put it into words for that player to have one day. For me, it’s just speaking from the heart about what I’m feeling at the time, depending on who it is. It’s a privilege, and I’m amazed by it, really. The bottom line is that they all gave in a little. NBC gave in and allowed the Fox thing, Fox gave in …

I’m beside myself. I’m excited. I look at it like, I’d rather have somebody want me to say more than to shut the heck up. That’s always been my philosophy. I want to simplify everything that’s been made complicated with respect to golf. I can jump in and articulate something in just a few words and get out, just let it hang in the air a little bit. I don’t know what I’m going to say on my first day at NBC. My first on-camera? That’s the only thing I’m nervous about. How is that going to look? How’s it going to go? Beyond that, it’s just golf … and that comes natural for me.

Jeff Babineau is a former president of the Golf Writers Association of America who has covered golf since 1994, writing for such publications as The Orlando Sentinel, Golfweek and Golf World. Email: Twitter: @jeffbabz62