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Azinger & Faldo reported to be joining ABC

Paul Azinger and Nick Faldo are linked by a dynamic Ryder Cup match in which neither player wanted to lose, even after they had nothing to gain.

In the final pairing at The Belfry in 1993, Faldo took the lead with an ace on the 14th. Azinger answered with a birdie to square the match. And although the United States already had clinched victory, they battled to the very end, with Azinger pouring everything into a 12-foot birdie on the 18th hole for a halve.

"The last time I talked to Nick Faldo, he shook my hand at the Ryder Cup," Azinger said.

The next time could be in the broadcast booth at ABC Sports.

Two sources connected to ABC, both speaking on condition of anonymity, told The Associated Press that the network will announce next week at the Tour Championship that Azinger and Faldo will share the booth with host Mike Tirico for a majority of ABC's golf telecasts next year.

"I can't answer that," said Mark Loomis, wrapping up his first full season as ABC's coordinating producer for golf.

Azinger, who first dabbled in television at the '95 Ryder Cup when he was recovering from cancer, is among five players who worked sparingly with ABC this year as the network tried to find a replacement for Curtis Strange.

"I don't want to be a full-time broadcaster," Azinger said.

Faldo worked with ABC at the British Open and the American Express Championship. He said in Ireland that he would like to work a dozen tournaments for ABC as a way to keep in touch with golf.

The sources said minor details were being worked out this week as ABC tries to complete its lineup of talent. The other networks have only one analyst in the booth: Johnny Miller at NBC, Lanny Wadkins at CBS.

"We are definitely going to be different next year," Loomis said. "I'm really excited about what we're planning."

It would be the latest wrinkle in a season of change for Loomis, who was hired about this time last year when Jack Graham resigned as ABC's golf producer.

ABC is often perceived as the weak link among network golf coverage, in part because of its schedule.

CBS has the Masters and the PGA Championship, along with highly rated PGA Tour events early in the season (Pebble Beach) and in the spring (Wachovia, Byron Nelson, Memorial). NBC has the fewest tournaments, but scores with the Florida swing, the U.S. Open and the Ryder Cup.

"Whoever has the Masters is always going to be the greatest focus. That's one golf tournament that sticks out," Loomis said. "And Johnny Miller has made a huge difference in golf television. I don't think we're third, but that's not my decision. I can just tell you we're trying to make it better."

Loomis, 37, started his career in 1990 by paying his way to golf tournaments to work as a runner. He researched statistics for Brent Musburger in 1992, moved up to a production assistant and has spent the last seven years producing college football and basketball for ABC.

His marching orders as the golf producer were tall.

"They said, 'Let's make this the best golf coverage on TV,'" Loomis said. "And in order to do that, you have to try a bunch of things."

The first step was production.

Loomis sent out a questionnaire to his entire crew, from cameramen to announcers, and the resounding response was that the telecast needed more energy.

He considered taking the lead analyst out of the booth and putting him on the course, although that never happened. The one experiment he liked was getting an on-course commentator to the ball quickly to explain what the player is facing on the next shot.

"Logistically, it's hard to make that happen," Loomis said. "We have to have a camera out there right away. And the best time to go to commercial is when they hit their tee shot, because it's a long walk. I don't want to do this just to do it. I want to do it when it makes sense."

The biggest change was when Strange resigned in June after nine years in the booth. Strange turns 50 next year and will be eligible for the Champions Tour, although he was interested in staying with ABC if he could get a long-term commitment. ABC didn't offer one as it tried to chart a new course.

Loomis says there is no model for golf coverage, although having two analysts in the booth would break the mold. As he spoke, ESPN's college football show was on the television behind him -- with Chris Fowler, Lee Corso and Kirk Herbstreit.

"Who says it has to be two, three, four people?" Loomis said. "It depends on the personalities and the mix. My hope is we put the right mix together. If I had to say anything about what the future holds, it's that we'll have a better mix of personalities.

"Don't get me wrong -- golf is the most important part, how we present it," he said. "I can do a million things production-wise, and the average viewer might subliminally notice or might be more entertained. But consciously, you really notice the announcers."

Azinger and Faldo might be just as dynamic in the booth as they were at The Belfry.

Faldo has a dry sense of humor, a distinctive voice and credentials stronger than any other player interested in television work -- six majors, 10 Ryder Cup teams and his 97 weeks atop the world ranking, the third-longest time at No. 1 behind Tiger Woods and Greg Norman.

Azinger is a prankster with an edge to his commentary. His first trip to the broadcast booth came in 1995 at the Ryder Cup, when NBC showed highlights of his match against Faldo.

"Look at that," Azinger said that day, when the tape showed Faldo making his hole-in-one. "I had cancer and he still couldn't beat me."

So he might as well join him.

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