Zinger! Something Bigger Than Golf

This PGA Golf Pro finds peace 'in the trap.'

by Paul Azinger with Ken Abraham

Paul Azinger

The sky was blue and the sun was shining as Toni, the kids and I pulled into the parking lot at the Kerlan-Jobe Sports Medicine Clinic, across the street from Centinela Hospital in Los Angeles.

I knew Dr. Jobe would be waiting for me, so we passed right on through the waiting area toward a side door. We burst through the door with me leading the way like General Custer leading his troops into battle. Toni and the girls were almost running to keep up with me as we virtually galloped down a 30-foot-long, narrow corridor to Dr. Jobe's secretaries' workstations.

I greeted the secretaries by name, Carol and Arlene, as I made the right-hand turn past a chest-high partition around their desks and headed down the final hallway toward Dr. Jobe's office. The secretaries seemed not at surprised to see me hightailing it through their work area. If they knew anything about my condition, they did not let on; they maintained a friendly but very professional manner.

Three words that changed my life

Dr. Jobe must have heard my voice, because I had no sooner rounded the turn than he came out of a corner office.

I blurted out, "How am I?" I didn't say, "Hello," or "Hi, Dr. Jobe, how are you?" Not a word of greeting.

Dr. Jobe was equally direct. He shook his head and said, "It's not good," as he pointed the way into his office.

I took a side step directly into the room. Tightly holding on to Sarah Jean and Josie's hands, Toni caught up and followed me.

Dr. Jobe's office could easily pass for a room in a sports hall of fame. The room is relatively small, considering what a noted surgeon he is, and the walls are covered with photos of famous athletes who have been his clients-major league pitchers Orel Hershiser and Ken Dayley, NBA basketball stars, all kinds of athletes from all around the world. My picture was not on the wall.

The doctor waited until the whole family had entered, then he closed the door. He circled around to his desk and sat down in his large leather chair. Toni and I sat down in two chairs facing the doctor's desk; the children took two chairs against the wall right behind us. Toni reached over, and I clasped her hand and held on to it tightly.

Without a word of warning, Dr. Jobe looked me straight in the eye and in an even tone of voice said, "You have cancer."

Whooom! That room exploded around me. It was as though someone had dropped an atomic bomb into my heart and mind.

Cancer! I have cancer!

Toni squeezed my hand tighter as we sat in stunned silence.

Dr. Jobe's next words were encouraging. "You're lucky," he said. "It's the most curable kind."

I wasn't feeling lucky at the moment. I was in shock. I had thought that Dr. Jobe would tell me they had discovered some form of weird infection in my shoulder or possibly even a stress fracture. The one thing I never expected to hear him say was cancer.

"How do you treat it?" I managed to ask.

"With chemotherapy and radiation," the doctor responded. He didn't try to cheer me up. Nor did he try to make it sound as through I was dying. All he said was that this form of cancer is very treatable.

Toni and I made lots of eye contact, but neither of us could say a word. Dr. Jobe said nothing more. We all sat in absolute silence, just looking at each other, for perhaps 15 seconds, 20 seconds… what seemed like an eternity.

Silence. Deafening silence.

Finally I turned to Dr. Jobe and asked, "Well, what do we do next?"

"We're going to see if it has spread."

See if it has spread! I hadn't even considered that the cancer might have spread. My thoughts started racing. When Dr. Jobe had operated on my shoulder in 1991, I had a biopsy on the acromion then, but the pathologists' report had come back negative. Now Dr. Jobe was saying we have to see if the cancer has spread! My first thought was, The doctors missed it in 1991. They misdiagnosed the problem. For the past two years I have been living on anti-inflammatory medicines. By now, that cancer could be all through my body!

That's when it really hit me. This is a big deal. This is cancer we're talking about! People die from cancer. I might die from cancer!

I was rocking back and forth in my chair, shaking my head up and down, when suddenly something like a blood rush overwhelmed me. I said, "I need to go to the bathroom."

I jumped up, quickly ran out the door, and raced down the same hallway we had come in. I took a left into the bathroom and threw up.

I was scared to death. Bent over in that tiny bathroom, I put my head in my hands and cried. I thought about the cancer that might be riddling my body. I thought about my family-my wonderful wife, Toni, and my children, Sarah Jean, almost 8 and Josie, who was 4. I thought about golf, and it occurred to me that I may never be able to play the game again.

Most of all, I thought about God. I knew I was not ready to meet my Maker. I cried out to God to save me. Whether it was to save my life or save my soul, I wasn't really sure. I just knew I needed Him, now more than ever.

Changing my top priority

I had considered myself a believer in Jesus Christ for more than eight years, and I was sincere in my faith. But it is one thing to believe in Him and quite another to trust Him completely with your life. My Christian experience to that point had been inconsistent at best, and at times a total washout. Jesus was not the Lord of my life-I was. God was not my top priority-golf was. Winning tournaments and improving my standing on the money list were most important to me. Most of my decisions, often including those regarding my family, revolved around golf, golf, golf.

As I sat in the hotel church service one morning, I realized how trivial many of my priorities were, I began to see recent events as a cumulative "wake-up call" from God.

Still Zinger

My "coming-out party" took place in Tulsa on May 16, 1994. It was the first time many of those people had seen me since the '93 Skins Game. I looked quite a bit different. I was totally bald and a little self-conscious because my eyebrows and eyelashes had fallen out and I didn't have a hair on my body. When I walked into the pressroom at the gorgeous Southern Hill Country Club, there were 120 media people in the room, with another 60 hooked up on a telephone conference call around the world. I had prayed the night before that God would give me just the right words to be an encouragement, not just to the people in that room, but to any who might see, hear or read about this event I the days ahead.

In commenting on my appearance and my treatments, I tried to strike a balance between the light and the serious. I said I was thrilled when my hair fell out and I kind of liked myself bald. "After all, bald is in," I told them. Just look at all those NBA basketball stars; they all have baldheads. As a matter of fact, as soon as I started losing my hair, I shaved my head and went out to our basketball hoop in the backyard. Within seconds, I was dunking shots."

The press corps loved it. They could tell that I had been through something devastating and were glad that, at least when it came to my sense of humor, I was still Zinger.

I went on from there and related many of the details leading up to the discovery of the cancer. Many of them were shocked to learn that the shoulder pain went all the way back to 1987. They had assumed it had just begun to bother me in 1991 and again in 1993. I wanted the press to know that I had felt fairly bulletproof in my life up until I heard those three devastating words, "You have caner," But I also wanted them to know that by renewing my faith in the Lord, I had found peace I had never known before.

Playing to win

People often ask me now, "Zinger, is golf still as important to you as it was before you had cancer?"

Yes and no. Yes, of course, golf is important to me. I love the game; it is how I make a living. But no, golf is not longer at the top of my priority list. In fact, it runs a slow fourth. My priorities now are God, my family, my friends, and golf. Golf is no longer my god. Golf is hitting a little white ball. God is my God, and God is a whole lot bigger than golf.

Used by permission, Zondervan.

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