LINKS LETTER, JANUARY 1995

FACING DEATH

By Paul Azinger

I was probably the happiest guy on earth.

On the last hole of the 1993 Memorial Tournament, I holed a bunker shot to win. There’s no greater feeling than to win a tournament that way.

It was the bunker shot of my life. I was just hoping to get the ball out softly on the green. So when it coasted toward the hole and into the cup, I was in shock. The birdie put me one shot ahead of my good friend, Payne Stewart, giving me my first victory of the year and extending my winning streak to seven consecutive years.

It was the thrill of a lifetime.

Reading about myself the next day and enjoying the satisfaction that came from winning that tournament gave me contentment that only winning can bring.

Next week at the Westchester Classic, I was looking forward to explaining to the press how I hit the winning bunker shot—about that little lump of sand behind my ball. And how it was all I could do to whack the sand so the ball would float over the lip and trickle gently into the hole.

But they didn’t ask me about the bunker shot.

The first question was, “Paul, since you’ve won the Memorial, you’re probably the best player in the world who’s never won a major. What do you need to do differently to win a major championship?”

Suddenly all the contentment I felt from winning the Memorial was stolen from me just like that. So much for being the happiest guy on Earth.

Now the pressure was on me to win a major championship. A few weeks later, I had a chance to do it at the U.S. Open at Baltusrol. I ended up finishing third—losing by only three shots. I was pretty satisfied with my performance, but I was also greatly disappointed that I let the opportunity get away. But I figured with the PGA coming up, I’d have another chance.

During the practice rounds at Inverness for the PGA, I was nervous. I knew how good I was hitting it and had every reason to believe that I could contend. After shooting 69-66 the first two rounds, I was four shots behind the leader, Vijay Singh.

Before coming to the PGA, I was having a lot of pain in my right shoulder. My doctor was concerned and did an MRI to look at the bone a few weeks earlier. The results came in, and on Friday night, two rounds into the tournament, I received a phone call from Dr. Jobe.

“Zinger, that shoulder looks abnormal to me,” he said with a serious tone. “I’d like to do a biopsy.”

“When do you want me to do it?” I asked.

“Tuesday or Thursday of next week.”

“Dr. Jobe,” I pleaded, “I’m playing great. I’ve got a chance to win the PGA. The Ryder Cup’s coming up. Can’t we do it later?”

“Well, it could be some kind of infection,” he said. “I’m going to give you some antibiotics. Keep taking an anti-inflammatory and we’ll put it off.”

The next day, I shot 69, followed by a 68 on Sunday. I birdied four of the last seven holes and was fortunate enough to get into a playoff with Greg Norman. And I was even more fortunate that a couple of his putts didn’t go in. After two playoff holes, I had won my first major championship. Talk about contentment and happiness, I really was the happiest guy on Earth. I’d gotten the press off my back for life. This was the ultimate. I won my major championship, and I’d probably never have to deal with pressure from the media again.

That is, until the Ryder Cup.

A few weeks after the PGA, the press was at it again. Now the big question was, “Paul, now that you’ve won the PGA and two other tournaments this year, you have a chance to be leading money winner and Player of the Year. What are you going to do differently? Are you going to continue your schedule?” I thought, Is this ever going to stop? It just never ends!

The joy I felt from winning the PGA started to wane.

It’s almost like buying a new car. At first, you don’t want anybody touching it. You wash it every week. Then, a couple of weeks later, you might wash it again. Then you wash it every three months. The next thing you know, someone dings it and you don’t even care.

The contentment from being a major champion was slowly dissolving. Nick Price ended up being Player of the Year and leading money winner. I was about $20,000 short. But, obviously, the year was still a tremendous success.

I was still putting off the biopsy, because I had a few more events to play. But the week before the Skins Game, I hurt my back and had to withdraw from the Shark Shootout. I was close to Los Angeles and Centinella Hospital, so I went to see Dr. Wadkins for my back and Dr. Jobe for my shoulder.

They ordered a bone scan from head-to-toe and another MRI. The MRI was to isolate my shoulder and the bone scan was to look at my back.

When I saw the x-rays of the bone scan, the area of the shoulder was pitch black. It didn’t look good.

“There are no ifs, ands or buts about it,” Dr. Jobe said. “We’re doing a biopsy Tuesday after the Skins Game.”

So after not winning a single skin, I went back to do the biopsy. They removed a little window out of the bone and said it looked good. It didn’t look like any kind of malignancy. But it would be seven to ten days before I found out the results of the biopsy.

Two days later, I got a call from Dr. Jobe’s secretary. She said Dr. Jobe wanted to see me in his office at one o’clock on Friday.

I knew something was wrong.

I didn’t eat dinner. I didn’t eat breakfast. And I didn’t eat lunch. When I got to the hospital, I saw Dr. Jobe in the hallway and didn’t even say hello.

“How am I?” I said.

“It’s not good,” he answered. And we went into his office. My wife and kids were there when he told me I had cancer in the bone in my shoulder. I was in shock. That was the last thing that I expected to hear. I thought maybe it was some kind of a weird stress fracture or an infection of some kind. But I didn’t expect him to say cancer.

“How do you treat it,” I asked nervously.

“With chemotherapy and radiation,” he said solemnly.

“Well, what do we do next?”

“We’re going to go across the street and see if it’s spread.”

The shock was still ringing. Here I am, 33 years old. Fairly bulletproof.

Suddenly that wasn’t the case.

The next thing I know, I’m in an x-ray room lying on an ice cold table, shivering from nervousness.

It was an awful feeling.

As I lay there while the technician adjusted the machines, a genuine feeling of fear came upon me—I could die from cancer. But then another reality hit me even harder—I’m going to die eventually anyway. Whether from cancer or something else, I’m definitely going to die. It’s just a question of when.

In that same moment, something Larry Moody, the man who leads our Bible study on the PGA Tour, has said to me many times came to mind: “Zinger, we’re not in the land of the living going to the land of the dying. We’re in the land of the dying, trying to get to the land of the living.”

My major championship, my ten victories before that, everything I had accomplished in golf became meaningless to me. All I wanted to do was live.

I don’t know how successful you are. I don’t know how big your house is, how much money you have, or how nice your car is. But I’m telling you, we came into this world with nothing and we’re leaving with nothing. And everything we get along the way is a blessing from God. If you’re finding your contentment and happiness in your accomplishments or from the amount of money and possessions you own, I’m here to tell you, it doesn’t last.

I’ve made a lot of money since I’ve been on Tour, and I’ve won a lot of tournaments. That happiness is always temporary.

The only way you will ever have true contentment is in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. I’m not saying that nothing ever bothers me and I don’t have problems, but I feel like I’ve found the answer to the six-foot hole. I know I’ll spend eternity with God. And I have a promise that as a child of God, He’ll help me deal with anything. He promises to give me contentment no matter what life brings-even cancer.

God did not intend for this world to be the best of all possible places. But it’s a place where we can prepare for the best of all possible places.

We need to recognize that we are separated from a perfect God because of our sin, and by placing our faith in Jesus Christ, we are promised eternal life. It’s the only way to experience the “peace that passes all understanding” that the Bible talks about.

Even though it’s great to be called a PGA Tour player, and it’s probably even greater to called a PGA Champion, no greater gift is mine than to be called a child of God, because I place my trust in Jesus Christ.

COPYRIGHT 1995 LINKS PLAYERS INTERNATIONAL

  • Paul Azinger

    12 PGA Tour Wins (one major): 1987 Phoenix Open, 1987 Panasonic Las Vegas Invitational, 1987 Canon Sammy Davis Jr. Greater Hartford Open, 1988 Hertz Bay Hill Classic, 1989 Canon Greater Hartford Open, 1990 MONY Tournament of Champions, 1991 AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, 1992 The Tour Championship, 1993 Memorial, 1993 New England Classic, 1993 PGA Championship, 2000 Sony Open in Hawaii