Acting-school teachers call it “using the space,” and there are few in golf who can so effortlessly fill a room like Paul Azinger.
The subject is irrelevant. ‘Zinger can cover a lot of ground without a lot of prompting, from fishing to leadership management, but it’s not so much his insight and analysis as much as it is his passion.
“My wife told me, ‘You’re good at two things, golf and talking,’” Azinger laughed.
The former lifted Azinger to a dozen PGA Tour victories, including the 1993 PGA Championship, during a playing career that spanned three decades, while the latter has now led him to the pinnacle in golf broadcasting.
Azinger, 58, reluctantly concedes that although he’s technically succeeding Johnny Miller as NBC Sports/Golf Channel’s lead analyst beginning next year, he will never “replace” the legend.
“The reality is I’m not going to fill Johnny Miller’s shoes. I’m just going to be myself. Johnny just said tell it like it is. Those shoes are not to be filled. That’s not my goal,” Azinger said.
Azinger’s body of work in the booth is well established. Where Miller’s analysis has been defined by his blunt and sometimes cutting honesty, Azinger, since he first transitioned to the television world in 2005 – first with ABC Sports and then with ESPN and Fox Sports – has shown a unique ability to effortlessly entertain and inform.
It wasn’t always that way. During a recent interview Azinger interrupted his normal stream of consciousness and admitted that when he arrived at Brevard [Fla.] Community College in the late 1970s his biggest challenge wasn’t playing golf or maintaining a proper grade-point average – it was speaking.
“I dropped out of speech class my first year of college because I was so afraid to do the speech,” he admitted before inserting his own punch line. “Once my voice activation system kicked on, now you can’t shut me up.”
It’s difficult to see it now from a man who is poised to become the game’s foremost conversationalist, but there was a time when one might have described Azinger as an introvert.
Even into his playing days on Tour Azinger was easy and airy around his fellow professionals, but he was never entirely comfortable in a crowd until 1987, which was a breakout year both competitively and personally.
“I was forced to give a speech in 1987; I was PGA player of the year,” said Azinger, who won three times in ’87 and finished runner-up at The Open. “There were 600 people, that was my first speech. There were more people than I wanted to see. I didn’t know what to do. It was awful. I got up and cracked a joke and kept going.”
And he’s been talking ever since.
When Azinger first joined the Tour, he remembers, he got lessons from Byron Nelson and short-game advice from Ben Crenshaw, and he’s competed against every top player from Jack Nicklaus to Tiger Woods.
He once lost a memorable shoot-out to Woods at Nicklaus’ tournament and was there when Tiger introduced himself to the world in 1996 at the Greater Milwaukee Open.
“Payne Stewart and I were on the tarmac in Milwaukee and I introduced myself,” he recalled. “I begged (Woods) to stay amateur because I knew he was going to do some damage.”
After retiring from competition in the mid-2000s with a variety of back ailments, Azinger was the original American task force when he led the U.S. team to victory at the ’08 Ryder Cup. He’s watched with keen interest as a new generation has transformed the game over the last decade.
Although ‘Zinger’s style promises to be different from Miller’s, players shouldn’t expect kid-glove treatment.
“I see the game of golf as broadly as I ever have. I see all the technology and try to take in the global nature of it,” he said. “I marvel that a guy can hit a golf ball 326 [yards] in the air. They can make a mockery of the hole, but they can make double bogey or triple as well.”
He showed his fiery side at this year’s U.S. Open while he was working for Fox Sports and the conversation turned to backstopping, the controversial practice of players attempting to use an opponent’s golf ball to gain an advantage.
“In our generation, the guy who chipped it up there, we didn’t have to tell him to mark that ball. He went up and marked it and we waited on him to mark it. That’s just how it was,” Azinger said at the time. “It’s not right and we all know it’s not right. Be friendly and all that, but do it correctly.”
No, Azinger has no interest in shying away from difficult subjects, just don’t expect him to go to the “choke” comments as quickly as Miller. That’s not his style.
Where Miller could be a blunt instrument at times, expect Azinger to deliver his assessments, however critical, with a smile and probably a joke.
“I love to talk golf as much as I ever have in my life. I think I would regret it if I didn’t take this opportunity,” Azinger admitted. “To be there live for the big events is an opportunity that not many people get. I watch golf with more of a keen eye than I ever have.”
Azinger was right, there is no replacing Miller, who will call his last event as NBC Sports/Golf Channel’s lead analyst at next year’s Waste Management Phoenix Open. ‘Zinger will bring his own style to the booth complete with an easy smile, disarming Southern drawl and a unique ability to thoroughly use the space.