Breaking the Slumpby Jimmy Roberts
In Breaking the Slump, NBC golf commentator Jimmy Roberts shares the “slump stories” of some of the greatest professional golfers of all time—from Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, and Tom Watson to Phil Michelson and Dottie Palmer—offering valuable tips and strategies to help any player overcome that inevitable stretch of absolutely wretched golf.
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Breaking the Slump
"Confidence is something that when you have it, you never think you're going to lose it, and when you lose it, you never think you're going to get it back."
It is a sunny late September morning in Bradenton, Florida, and I am standing in line at Starbucks with Captain America. I go for a decaf, but Paul Azinger prefers something stronger. As if he needs it. He's buzzing anyway.
"Way to go," an older woman yells at Azinger a few minutes later from the window of a weathered SUV. "Congratulations!"
Much to Azinger's delight and surprise, the scene is repeated a handful more times as we sit sipping our coffee at an outdoor table. "There's a lot going on that's not good," he says. "I think it's kind of a scary time, and this was uplifting for a lot of people."
Eight days earlier, using a blueprint for team building that might wow the people at Harvard Business School, Azinger engineered a win for the United States at the Ryder Cup in Louisville, Kentucky. It had been nearly a decade since the last United States win, and America's fortunes in the competition had become something of a hyper-scrutinized obsession in the insular world of golf. So instead of sipping coffee with me on a lazy Monday morning on the Gulf Coast of Florida, Azinger could be in Los Angeles doing the Tonight Show with Jay Leno, or taping a guest spot with Ellen DeGeneres or Jimmy Kimmel, but he has turned it all down to come back home and just let it sink in.
"I feel like I spent the last two years slowly pulling back the string of a bow and I finally let it go."
With theCup in tow, he will venture across town later in the week to throw out the first pitch in Game Two of the first ever major league baseball post-season series for his hometown Tampa Bay Rays. As we sit talking, his phone rattles incessantly. Hundreds of text messages, voice-mails, and e-mails have yet to be returned, including one from the president of the United States. "I don't want to call him back yet. He's so busy up there. I don't want him to feel obligated to take my call. He's got more important things to do."
The night before, we walked out his back door and onto the dock, which leads 382 feet out into Tampa Bay. The sky was clear and the night was silent, except for small waves lapping hypnotically against the pylons. Azinger looked west towards the Gulf of Mexico and sighed. "People always ask me why in the world I would want to live in Bradenton. There's nothing here. 'You're right,' I tell them. 'You don't want to come here.'?"
He laughs, and we head back to the house. Life is impossibly good. Three months ago, he walked his oldest daughter down the aisle, and just seven days earlier, he cunningly led the U.S. team to a Ryder Cup win over a side captained by his long-time adversary and irritant, Nick Faldo, the man with whom he'd often sarcastically dueled as television commentators for ABC Sports. Many in American golf would have you believe that the Louisville matches were a matter of life and death. Azinger is a vicious competitor, and he desperately wanted to win the Ryder Cup, but it was hardly a life-and-death affair. Who in golf could possibly know that any better?
There was a time not too long before when Azinger's celebrity wasn't about helping others do their best, or commenting about it on TV, but rather doing it himself.
In 1987, he was the PGA of America's Player of the Year. It was the start of a muscular seven-year stretch during which he collected eleven wins on Tour and finished every year except one in the top ten on the money list. The year he didn't, he finished eleventh. "If I wasn't the best player in the world, I was certainly the hottest," he says.
He might have also been the biggest surprise.
There are successful pros like Nicklaus or Mickelson or Woods who exploded through amateur and junior golf and collected every credential there was. There are players like Steve Stricker and Davis Love who had modest but successful amateur careers before they made a name in professional golf. And then there are the real rarities...players like Azinger.
"I couldn't break 80 two days in a row my senior year in high school," Azinger remembers. "I suppose I probably could, but if I did, I'd run home and tell someone."
The son of an Air Force navigator who flew C-141s in Korea and Vietnam, Azinger learned to play golf mostly on military bases. His earliest memory of the game is riding atop the pull cart his dad, Ralph, dragged around the course at Homestead Air Force Base in south Florida when Paul was three years old.
"My dad was a single-digit handicap," he says, "but my mom was better than him. She got down to like a four or five handicap."
Aside from winning several state and regional tournaments, Jean Azinger's claim to fame was playing...and with great distinction...in an exhibition with the hall-of-famer Patty Berg in 1959. Jean chipped in three times during the round, a round she played while seven months pregnant...with Paul.
Initially, though, her son's in utero training didn't seem to make much of an imprint. Paul Azinger was mostly an indifferent high school golfer.
"None of my friends played golf," he says. "I just wasn't into it."
Upon graduating from Sarasota High School in the spring of 1978, he didn't get a single scholarship offer and ended up at Brevard Community College. "I knew I wasn't any good at golf," he says. "Sometimes you think you're good and you're not. I knew I wasn't that good."Breaking the Slump. Copyright © by Jimmy Roberts. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Meet the Author
Jimmy Roberts has worked as a full-time reporter for ABC, ESPN, and NBC. He has won eleven Emmy Awards and a Golf Writers Association of America Award. Roberts lives in Westchester County, New York, with his wife and three sons.
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