CHARGING BACK

CHARGING BACK

From Chicken Soup for the Golfer's Soul The Second Round

Charging Back

For a guy who comes wrapped up in such a nice, warm package, he has a fire that could light up a whole city.

Peter Jacobsen—on Paul Azinger

It takes a lot to get my mind off golf. Like most members of the Professional Golfers’ Association, I eat, sleep and drink the game. That’s the life of a pro. Or at least that’s what I used to think.

Dr. Lobe called me unexpectedly on Friday evening after the second round of the 1993 PGA Championship at Inverness Club outside Toledo, Ohio.

At the time, I had the dubious distinction of being known as the best player in the world never to win a major. Sure, I had come a long way from salad days struggling to make the qualifying cut at the PGA tour school. Back at the 1987 British Open, I had held the lead all week on the misty, windswept fairways of Muirfield in Scotland, only to suffer a devastating loss to Nick Faldo on the last hole. Though I won a lot of other tournaments, a major title still eluded me.

At age thirty-three, I was at the top of my game and feeling pretty invincible. I was in good shape going into the third round at Inverness, just a couple of shots off the pace behind Greg “the Shark” Norman, an Australian. My family was in Ohio with me, which made golfing even more of a pleasure. It was a heady feeling competing for a $300, 000 purse in front of a global television audience. The pressure was definitely on. That’s why it was strange that Dr. Lobe would call me at my hotel. My wife, Toni, handed me the receiver with a quizzical look and hushed the kids.

I had been having trouble again with nagging pain in my right shoulder. Dr. Lobe, one of the premier sports physicians in the world, had operated on my shoulder in 1991, and I had recently seen him in Los Angeles about the recurring soreness. Now he came right to the point: the x rays he had taken concerned him. “Paul, I want you back in Los Angeles for a biopsy as soon as possible.” Biopsy? I thought. Is he crazy? I’m in contention here. I have the rest of the tour to finish and the Ryder Cup. I can’t take time off now!

Dr. Lobe finally relented and agreed that the biopsy could wait until later in the fall, when I would be in California for a tournament. Until then I would survive on anti-inflammatories, aspirin and prayer. Tendinitis, I told myself, and banished it from my mind.

I went out the next day, a boiling hot Saturday, and shot a solid 68 to climb one stroke behind Norman. At the end of Sunday’s final eighteen holes, I was in a tie with the Shark for the Wanamaker Trophy. Then, on the second hole of sudden-death play, Greg missed a tricky putt for par and I made mine to become the PGA champ. I had my title! Not one to take things mildly, I leapt into the air. Next I gave thanks to the Lord, which is what I had always promised to do when I won a major. With Toni and our daughters, Sarah Jean, seven, and Josie, four, at my side, I went to raise the regal trophy high for all to see. Suddenly a sharp pain sliced through my right shoulder. It was all I could do to lift the silver cup.

I was determined not to let the pain lessen the thrill of victory or undermine my plans. I went to England and played with the U.S. team against the Europeans for the 1993 Ryder Cup, which we retained that year. But the pain never went away. By late November, when I finally saw Dr. Lobe in Los Angeles, I was barely able to operate the stick shift in my car. In fact, sometimes I drove and depressed the clutch while Toni shifted gears. As I sat on the table in Dr. Lobe’s examining room that Monday morning at Centinela Hospital, showing him the spot on my shoulder that was now red-hot to the touch, he was irritated that he let me talk him out of doing a biopsy earlier. He took a pen and gently drew a line across the hot spot. “I’m going to make the incision right here, ” he said thoughtfully. “Don’t shower that line off tomorrow morning.”

As I dressed, for the first time I felt a stab of fear. Come on, Zinger, I reproached myself. It’s probably nothing. That’s what I told Toni that night back at the hotel while we talked quietly in our room and the kids went to dinner with Mildred, their sitter. What was the worst it could be? A stress fracture or some infection? I would be back on the course in no time. The next morning Dr. Lobe scraped out about a capful of tissue and bone for testing. We waited a few days for the results.

That week—a week of worry and prayer for Toni and me—I thought a lot about our life together and how intertwined with golf it was. We married in our home state of Florida in January of 1982 as soon as I got my tour card, and Toni was a golf wife from the from the start. In those hard, early years Toni and I traveled the country in an old camper, chasing the tournaments. In the off-season back in Florida, she worked as a bookkeeper while I practiced, practiced, practiced. It might be my name up there on the leader board when I’m playing well, but really, Toni’s should be there, too. She’s been as much a part of my success as I have.

When Toni and I went back to see Dr. Lobe, I dispensed with the usual pleasantries. “How am I?” I blurted out.

He looked me right in the eye. “Paul, you have cancer.” One simple word. Cancer. Impossible. It was a good thing I was sitting. Toni gripped my hand, and I rocked back and forth in my chair, shaking my head. I had been worried about my career, not about dying. Suddenly everything changed. “Paul, if the cancer is still localized, then it is treatable.”

Something like a silent explosion overwhelmed me. “I need the restroom, ” I gasped, rushing out the door and down the hall. Bent over in that tiny bathroom, I put my head in my hands. I thought about Toni and the girls, about our life. I thought about golf. Dear Lord, help me. I’m scared to death! Then I cried until I heard Toni knocking on the door, asking gently, “Paul, are you okay?”

After I pulled myself together, Dr. Lobe brought me in to see an oncologist, Dr. Lorne Feldman, who put me through a battery of tests to determine if the cancer had spread beyond my shoulder. Late in the day, Toni and I went back to our hotel to struggle through a weekend of waiting for the test results. As I played with the kids I thought about the PGA title, and what a cruel twist it would be if it turned out that I should have been in the hospital instead of competing with Greg Norman in the heat and humidity at Inverness.

We took Sarah Jean and Josie to a mall on Saturday to take our minds off our situation, but all the Christmas decorations going up just made me more anxious. Early Sunday morning a false fire alarm roused us from bed. Toni noticed a sign in the lobby announcing church services in one of the ballrooms. “Want to go?” she asked me.

Toni and I had become Christians back in the days when we were bouncing around the country in our old camper—happy, carefree, uncomplicated days, they seemed now. Sometimes when you have the least you are most aware of how much the Lord provides. We always managed to put enough food in our mouths and gas in the camper. We took turns driving and reading aloud from the Bible.

Now Toni, Mildred, the kids and I slipped quietly into the back of the ballroom where services were being held by a local church whose regular facilities were under construction. The big room was full and smelled of cut flowers. That false alarm had not been so false after all. There was a fire in the air, a spiritual charge I felt throughout my body. I sensed I was face-to-face with God, and an excitement I hadn’t felt in years came over me. I knew that Christ wanted not just my cancer, or my golf, or my fears about my family, but all of it—my whole life, if only I would give it to him and recommit myself to faith. I need you now more than ever, Lord, I whispered silently.

That afternoon my parents flew in from Florida, and the next day we heard the news from Dr. Feldman that as far as they could determine the cancer had not spread beyond the right scapula. I was immediately scheduled for six chemotherapy treat ments, one every four weeks, administered right there in his office, starting that day. Between treat ments I could return home to Florida.

That first chemo session was a doozy. I suffered intractable nausea and got so dehydrated that I had to be rushed back to the hospital for emergency treat ment. But after a few days, Toni and I flew home. Coming home is always a relief to a professional athlete, the real reward at the end of the game. This time it was even more so.

Anyone who has seen me golf knows I am not a player who disguises his emotions. You don’t need the television commentator to tell you if I am happy or upset with a shot. I’ll let you know. That’s me, not exactly Mr. Mellow. Yet the first few days home, I found myself spending hours in our backyard just looking at the flowers and the trees, or watching birds through binoculars. I was turning so mellow it was beginning to scare me! “Maybe the chemo went to my brain, ” I told Toni, joking.

The phone rang regularly with well-wishers, including President Bush and even my PGA competitor Greg Norman. I found out that the Shark has a soft side.

Then one morning while I was getting ready for the day, something happened. I stood in my bedroom praying, wondering in the back of my mind what would happen if I didn’t get better. The sun was forcing its way through the blinds when suddenly a powerful feeling swelled over me like a huge, gently rolling wave lifting my feet off the sandy bottom of the sea. I stopped everything I was doing and experienced an incredible, peace-giving sensation. I knew that God was with me, and I felt absolutely assured that I would be okay. It wasn’t that God told me what would happen next or that the cancer would go away. I simply felt positive I was in his complete and loving care no matter what.

I am blessed to say that today, six years after my diagnosis, the cancer is gone. I’m back on the tour trying to shake the rust off my golf game. Dr. Lobe said it was probably a good thing I didn’t rush out to California right after the PGA title because at that time, the number of cancer cells in my body might not have been sufficient to show up on a biopsy. I guess, in a way, my competitive drive saved me after all, but what keeps me going most these days is the chance to be an example for others who are struck by disease, to help them see that God is there for them no matter what. That’s all you need to know to get through anything in life. That is the real “major.”

Which is not to say, of course, that the next time I find myself in a playoff with the Shark you won’t be able to tell how I feel about a shot. I am the way God made me, and I don’t think the Lord is interested in tinkering with my golf game.

Paul Azinger with Ken Abraham

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