Sunday, Sep 23, 2018
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David Briggs

MIRRORS OF SPORT

For Paul Azinger, Inverness is a little slice of heaven on turf

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    Paul Azinger hits a bunker shot while running a clinic at Inverness Club on Monday.

    Blade/Amy E. Voigt

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    Paul Azinger, who won the 1993 PGA Championship at Inverness, reacts to a shot while instructing golfers during a clinic on the 25th anniversary of his win Monday.

    Blade/Amy E. Voigt

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    Paul Azinger hoists the Wanamaker Trophy at the 1993 PGA Championship at Inverness after defeating Greg Norman in a two-hole sudden-death playoff.

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    Paul Azinger, right, instructs pro golfer and son-in-law Sebastian Mark during a clinic on the 25th anniversary of winning the PGA Championship at the Inverness Club.

    Blade/Amy E. Voigt

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    Paul Azinger instructs golfers during a clinic at Inverness Club on Monday.

    Blade/Amy E. Voigt

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    Paul Azinger, right, who won the 1993 PGA Championship at Inverness, speaks with Alan Fadel, left, during the clinic.

    Blade/Amy E. Voigt

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For some, it is an island paradise. For others, a candlelight dinner in Paris.

For Paul Azinger, heaven is a place on turf, sprawled across 200 rolling acres of bent grass in Toledo.

“I love this place,” he said Monday at the Inverness Club.

A quarter century after Azinger won the 1993 PGA Championship here, he returned for the first time to the iconic Dorr Street track that changed his life.

Azinger entertained at a club banquet in his honor Sunday night, then took in the freshly restored course on Monday.

His first impression: Dude, where are my trees?

The same grounds once lined by pines and spruces have given way to extraordinary vistas screened only by one interior conifer — the famed Hinkle Tree at the eighth tee.

“In Florida, we have this pine tree-eating beetle,” he said. “But it doesn’t hold a candle to that chainsaw. ... I bet y’all got some wood for your fireplaces this year.”

His second impression: He loves what they’ve done with the place.

WATCH: Paul Azinger interacts with golfers at Inverness Club on Monday

I asked the 58-year-old Azinger — a man who has played nearly all the top clubs on the planet and is now one of the game’s foremost influencers as the lead golf analyst for Fox — where Inverness now rates among the pantheon of courses.

“It’s got to be in the top 10 or 20 in the world, doesn’t it?” he said. “If you look at it from a historic perspective, it definitely is. And if you look at the course and the playability, if you can name 20 courses better than this, shoot, then that’s a solid list of courses.”

Oh, and, yes, Azinger believes Inverness deserves another major championship. More on that in a minute.

First, it was time to reminisce.

Eight years removed from his last pro round, Azinger kept his sticks in the bag during a shotgun event here Monday, instead carting group to group to pose for pictures and share old stories. “Too stiff,” he said.

Perhaps it was just as well.

Why mess with a perfect memory?

A week of destiny — to borrow his words — that flooded back to him with photographic clarity.

Azinger remembers the burden he felt upon rolling into Toledo in ‘93. He was playing the best golf of his life, rated among the top five players in the world and fresh off two wins, including at the Memorial Tournament. But as the latest heir to the Best Player To Have Never Won A Major distinction — as the media politely reminded him each week — he wondered if his crowning day would ever arrive.

“I was nervous on Tuesday because I knew I was going to be in contention,” he said. “I was hitting it right on the button.”

In the clubhouse Wednesday night, he fatefully ran into Byron Nelson.

“Mr. Nelson,” he said to the legend, “I know you were the pro here. If there’s any advice you could give me, what would it be?”

“Well, Paul,” Nelson replied. “I suppose the greens are so small here at the Inverness Club that if you aim for the center at every one of them, you’ll have a good birdie putt.”

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Paul Azinger hoists the Wanamaker Trophy at the 1993 PGA Championship at Inverness after defeating Greg Norman in a two-hole sudden-death playoff.

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And so he did just that, keeping it simple all the way to opening rounds of 69-66.

That’s where it might have ended. Late Friday, Azinger received an ominous call from Dr. Frank Jobe, the noted orthopedic surgeon he had recently consulted for a nagging pain in his right shoulder. The bone scan? Jobe reported it looked “terrible.” Cancer was a strong possibility. Azinger needed a biopsy ASAP.

But then a funny thing happened.

While the uncertainty weighed on Azinger, he felt both an urgency and — with golf put in perspective — an indescribable calm, along with a shade of levity.

He birdied four of his final seven holes for a back-nine course-record 30 to nudge past Nick Faldo and force a playoff with Greg Norman. On the first extra hole, at the 18th tee, Azinger noticed Norman tying to place his caddie.

“Haven’t I seen you somewhere before?” he remembers Norman said.

Yep. Mark Jimenez looped for Bob Tway at the 1986 PGA Championship at Inverness, and in a cosmic twist, was on the bag for Azinger in 1993. Seven years after Jimenez’s old boss holed out a bunker shot at No. 18 to vanquish the star-crossed Norman, his new one delivered both parties no less joy and heartbreak, beating The Shark on the second playoff hole.

Azinger smiled Sunday night as he watched the final-round highlights during dinner.

“It was great to see Greg and Faldo on the screen because Nick and Greg and I are like this right here,” he said, holding together his index and middle finger.

“Actually,” he cracked, “this is me.”

He raised his pointer finger.

“And this is those two guys.”

Up came the bird.

The audience erupted.

As it were, the roars at Inverness’ last major proved among the last of his own career, too. Azinger would be diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and though he recovered after six months of chemo and radiation, he never recaptured his past form, leaving Inverness to forever hold an unmatched place in his heart. It was his stature-elevating title here that allowed him to later become a Ryder Cup captain and a network TV analyst.

“Thank God I won,” he said.

As for Inverness’ future, Azinger is bullish, same as us.

Call it informed speculation, but my sense is Inverness has more momentum with the governing bodies in charge of handing out the U.S. Open and PGA Championship than any point since 1993, its time truly now or never. For all the well-founded concern that such events priced themselves out of our market, I believe the critically lauded restoration, the coup hire of former Oakmont superintendent John Zimmers, and a proactive membership — all of that on top of the appeal to history — gives the six-time host a better than 50-50 shot of hearing No. 7 announced in the next couple years.

“This would be a great U.S. Open course because the premium would be on putting the ball on the fairway — especially if they get the big, tall rough that falls over — and you’ve got those itty-bitty, tiny greens,” Azinger said. “If you pull off the Solheim Cup [in 2021] here, I'd be lobbying hard for a Ryder Cup, too. This would be a great place for the Ryder Cup.”

“You have it made here,” he added, “and [the club] has a great opportunity to influence the USGA or PGA of America to come back here and look at this place since you redid it. It’s beautiful. ... I love the idea that now when you're sitting way the heck out there on No. 7 green, you can see the clubhouse. It's just fabulous. Now, it's time to lobby.”

Count Azinger in.

Better than anyone, he knows the magic of the place. 

Contact David Briggs at dbriggs@theblade.com419-724-6084, or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.

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