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Azinger becomes a champion again

Azinger becomes a champion again

At the end of a season that produced little progress and too much heartache, Paul Azinger wasn't even sure he wanted to keep playing golf for a living.

Free of cancer, he wondered if he would ever win again. After losing three of his best friends in a plane crash, including U.S. Open champion Payne Stewart, he wasn't sure how much it mattered any more.

Azinger packed emotion into a wire-to-wire victory Sunday in the Sony Open, overcoming cancer and self-doubts with a seven-stroke win in Honolulu. He immediately dedicated the victory to the families of his friends killed in the Oct. 25 crash.

"Considering all that happened around us last year ... really changed how me and my family view things," he said.

In the years since Azinger won the 1993 PGA Championship, played a key role in another U.S. Ryder Cup victory, and then was diagnosed with cancer in his right shoulder, he never finished higher than fourth. He rarely even contended, a kick in the stomach to a player who had gone seven straight years (1987-93) with at least one PGA Tour victory.

"For 4 1/2 of those six years, I saw no hope," he said.

One daughter had become a teen-ager. The other was too big to scoop up in his arms. Life was sailing by, and Azinger felt he was missing out.

And then, it all came crashing down on Oct. 25 when Azinger was driving home from the National Car Rental Golf Classic in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., where he tied for 17th and was starting to believe his game was finally rounding into shape.

His brother called on his cell phone with news that caused Azinger to pull over on the side of the road. A LearJet was flying uncontrolled over America, a deadly crash only a matter of time. The six aboard included his best friend on tour, U.S. Open champion Payne Stewart, and two other dear friends -- agents Robert Fraley and Van Ardan.

"I had never felt that kind of weight on me before. I had never felt that weak in the knees," said Azinger, heavy words from a man who overcame lymphoma in the prime of his career with no guarantee he would get back.

By the end of the week, he had mustered enough strength to attend the funeral of each man. His eulogy of Stewart was particularly poignant. Azinger donned a tam o'shanter cap and rolled up his slacks, the style that had made Stewart so popular.

"He only played to win," Azinger said in a tearful eulogy.

That's the only way Azinger used to approach the game. He was never the most gifted player in golf, but few were more determined.

Azinger couldn't even break 40 for nine holes until he was a senior in high school, but he got his PGA Tour card after his first attempt in qualifying school. He finally won on his fifth full year on tour, then won each of the next seven years.

His best year was 1993, when he holed out a bunker shot on the 72nd hole at the Memorial Tournament to beat Stewart and beat Greg Norman in a playoff at Inverness to win the PGA Championship.

Then came cancer, which caused Azinger to miss the first seven months of 1994.

"I never thought that taking that year off would change the state of my game," he said. "I never thought I would have that kind of trouble -- not that winning was easy. But I was never even getting in contention.

"I just didn't see where it would ever come back, that I would win again."

The turnaround started about the middle of last year -- a tie for sixth in Memphis and in the Buick Challenge, and a real threat in the Canadian Open. He was two off the lead going into the final round but closed with a 77.

His wife and daughters were with him in Honolulu as Azinger battled his emotions with each birdie that put even more distance between him and the rest of the field.

"It's hard to put into words the feelings I have," he said. "I want to scream and yell, but I also have subdued feelings. I realize so many of my good friends are hurting right now. This is for all of them."

Azinger's fear was that each tournament into the new season would cause memories of Stewart to fade.

"People ask, 'Are you over it?' I don't want to get over it," he said. "I want to remember how I felt about those folks."

When it was over, his voice cracked and he fought tears the way he did at Stewart's funeral. Azinger knew he could win again. He proved to the thousands of cancer victims who have written him over the years that "life can return to normal."

And his victory rekindled memories of three friends who perished in the plane crash three months ago.

"It's for the Stewart family, which is dealing with so much right now. It's for the Ardans and Fraleys," Azinger said. "I think this is going to be their first happy moment in a long time."

After cashing in for the first time in more than six years, Azinger left for the Monterey Peninsula to take part in the media day for the defending champion of the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am -- Stewart.

Azinger asked a couple of weeks ago if he could fill in, unaware he would show up as a champion once again.

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