Head Down, Spirits Up for Azinger's Road Back

Article excerpt

Paul Azinger puts down his pitching wedge after lofting a few shots into the late afternoon sky.

"Whew," Azinger says, his heavy breathing amplified by microphone across the driving range at the Muirfield Village Golf Club.

Soon after, a gust of heavy wind knocks off Azinger's golf cap. His head, completely bald after six months of chemotherapy, glistens in the bright sun.

Azinger, 33, is back at the Memorial Tournament. The last sight of him here was 11 months ago when he lofted his arms in ecstatic triumph and fell to his knees after sinking a shot from a greenside bunker. The final-hole birdie has been called the PGA shot of the year. It won the tournament.

But Azinger's appearance at the Memorial is brief. On Saturday, he began five weeks of daily radiation treatment for lymphoma, a form of cancer in his right shoulder.

Memorial Tournament officials didn't want to bother Azinger during his recovery so his presence wasn't requested. But Azinger contacted the tournament office. He asked to attend a ceremony honoring Mickey Wright, and also to participate in the pros' clinic hosted Wednesday by Jack Nicklaus.

So here Azinger stands under a brilliant blue sky, a wedge in hand, and surrounded by fellow players. About 5,000 people cram three bleacher sections. Adults stand four-deep behind ropes as far as 75 yards away. Children lie on their bellies under the bleachers, peeking through legs.

"It's really exciting to be back out here," Azinger says.

Azinger's excitement stems in part from the huge gallery lining the practice range. But he's just as pleased about seeing the other players. This is the first tournament Azinger has attended since being diagnosed with cancer Dec. 3.

"I realize more and more this is my element," Azinger said earlier in the day. …