News & Opinion

Simply the best because he believes it

Paul Azinger remembers when he and Payne Stewart flew in for the 1996 Greater Milwaukee Open. They were on the tarmac at General Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee when they bumped into Tiger Woods, who had just arrived after winning the U.S. Amateur for a third straight time.

This was going to be Woods’ PGA Tour debut.

“Tiger was turning pro, and Payne was trying to talk him into staying amateur so he wouldn’t pick our pockets clean,” Azinger said, laughing. “I remember Payne telling Tiger, ‘You should definitely stay in college, man.’ No chance. It was ‘Hello, World,’ baby.”

That week, Azinger and Loren Roberts got into a discussion with a fellow tour player who complained about the reported $40 million that Woods got from Nike to turn pro, a stunning sum then.

“ ‘I can’t believe he’s getting all this money up front,’ ” Azinger recalled the pro saying. “ ‘He hasn’t done one thing yet. He’s not any better than me.’ Loren and I looked at each other and I said, ‘Oh, no, he’s way better than you, man.’ We just laughed.”

A lot of PGA Tour players didn’t believe in the myth that Woods built by dominating junior and amateur golf, winning six straight national amateur titles in the process. They thought pro golf would humble Woods.

“I figured Tiger had another step to take,” Azinger said. “Well, he took it. He struggled a bit at first; he changed his swing a bit. Once that light switch flipped, it stayed on.”

By the 2000 British Open, Woods was in full flight and golf had a new era. I remember interviewing Azinger outside St. Andrews’ Old Course clubhouse then, and he talked about how demoralizing Woods’ play was because it meant no one in Azinger’s generation could ever be considered the best golfer. “He wiped out everybody,” Azinger said. “He might do it again, too.”

Azinger was a popular PGA Tour player, a former PGA Championship winner, a winning U.S. Ryder Cup captain in 2008 and now he is NBC Golf’s lead analyst. When Woods finished off that Masters victory April 14, Azinger was preparing to go on the air for the BBC. He watched Woods tap in the winning putt. “I heard it, too, even though the BBC trailer was all the way over on the other side of the range,” Azinger said. “Our trailer had a window open.”

I called Azinger a few days later at his home in Bradenton, Fla., to get his insight. Though I picked Woods to win the Masters based on his improved putting stroke and driver swing at the WGC Dell Match Play in Austin, Texas, the man whom everyone still calls “Zinger” attributed the Masters victory to Woods’ strong mental game.

“What makes him so different that he can achieve this?” Azinger said. “How does he allow himself to do what he does, and with such great comfort? He gets to that place more than anybody. It has to be self-talk. You have to win that fight in your head. Right out of the gate on the tournament’s first hole, Tiger striped the drive and didn’t even watch it land. He twirled the club, grabbed the tee and was outta there. He did that all week. He was intimidatingly cocky; he was so confident. He hits it so good; he wants to show you with that twirl. He’s why you bought your ticket.”

I made an argument for Woods’ superior technique being a big part of his success. Woods is modern golf’s Ben Hogan. He plays the way Hogan did, hitting whatever shot is called for, whether it’s a low fade or a high draw. He plays golf the right way, or, as Hogan saw it, the only way. But I didn’t win this debate.

“A lot of guys can stripe it on the range,” Azinger said. “When the crap is about to hit the fan, Tiger and Jack [Nicklaus] got into another zone where they’re more comfortable than everybody else and they know exactly what to do.

“I’ve had it. I won tournaments by large numbers. Bay Hill, Sony. You just go to another place. But I couldn’t do it 81 times.”

Azinger laughed. He agreed that no other player is in Woods’ class as a modern shot-maker and tries to work the ball as many directions as Woods does, or can do it with as much precision.

So now we’re back to self-belief, which Azinger thinks is Woods’ biggest weapon.

“He’s going to have the best self-talk of anybody the rest of this year now,” Azinger said. “He’s also got that intimidation factor, plus he knows how long it takes to get to the Fourth Day, and he knows what Fourth Day feels like. No matter who he’s up against, they’re going to be less comfortable than he is. Advantage, Tiger.”

I remember Taco Bell’s ill-fated FourthMeal marketing campaign. It was a dud because no overweight person wants to be reminded that he is downing a “fourth meal.” It’s bad for self-worth.

Azinger coined the Fourth Day concept, I believe. Each tournament has two sections: the first three days, during which a golfer plays his way into or out of contention; and the Fourth Day, when contending players duke it out for the victory.

Fourth Day is different than the other three rounds. It’s a totally different animal at the Masters, with Augusta National’s dangerous risk-and-reward holes.

“All those putts Dustin Johnson missed, he’s got to be thinking, I could’ve won by 10,” Azinger said. “The same with Tony Finau. That’s Fourth Day pressure.

“I had it happen at TPC Sawgrass once when I was in the last group on a Sunday in the early 1990s. I had a 10-footer on the second green. I looked at the putt and saw nothing – nothing! I was like, Uh-oh! I was in trouble right there. The greens were fast and crunchy. I hunted for that line the rest of the day and couldn’t see it. I was a loser.”

The more Fourth Days a player experiences, the better. Presumably, success will come. Who’s had more big Fourth Day chances than Woods? Nobody, even after his recent hiatus.

“Sometimes, you don’t know what you’re missing, but people who watched golf, they knew exactly what they were missing when Tiger wasn’t playing,” Azinger said. “We almost felt like we’d been robbed. Fifteen years. How could Tiger go out like a bottle rocket – whoosh! – and be gone? It was such a bummer. It must have been what John McEnroe felt after Bjorn Borg was gone.”

I ask how long the new Tiger 3.0 can be sustained. Easy question, apparently.

“Tiger outperforms everyone because he has the best belief system,” Azinger said. “Look, we had a couple of sparklers in there the last 10 years but now, Tiger is full-blown back. He’s just the best player in golf, that’s all.”

Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: gvansick@aol.com; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle