Early in his professional playing career Paul Azinger was paired with Gary Koch in a PGA Tour event. He barely got any sleep the night before.
“Growing up it was like, ‘It’s Gary-freaking-Koch bro,’’ Azinger said. “I got paired with him and I was freaking out.’’
Koch said he doesn’t remember that pairing, but he does go way back with Azinger. Koch, 66, grew up in Tampa while Azinger, 59, grew up in Bradenton. Their paths often crossed.
Now the duo work together.
Azinger, who was the 2008 U.S. Ryder Cup captain, replaced longtime golf commentator Johnny Miller on NBC broadcasts this spring. Miller had been the network’s lead analyst since 1990.
Koch and Azinger will be on the air starting Thursday when the Valspar Championship begins play. Koch worked with Miller for 22 years. He said working with Azinger has been an easy transition, even though Azinger is a bit different than Miller.
“I think their styles are different,’’ Koch said. “I think Paul is a little more down to earth, home spun. A good ole boy style. Johnny had accomplished so much in his playing days. At times it seemed to be a little bit more about him. His reference points were often his relation to what he had accomplished. I don’t get that sense from Paul so far.’’
Azinger is more like a rookie on tour right now. Being a golf analyst is right where he wants to be, but it’s not quite the same as being a player.
“It’s completely different,’’ Azinger said. “The satisfaction you get from winning a golf tournament is nothing you will ever receive from doing a golf broadcast. Unless you’re winning Emmys or something. But I really like it. I like the crew. I really can’t believe I’m doing this.’’
Back to back
Jason Day’s back hurt so much two weeks ago that he had to withdraw from the Arnold Palmer Invitational in Orlando. He needed four cortisone shots in his lower back to get him through last week’s Players Championship, where he finished tied for eighth and was in contention on the back nine.
He will test his back again this week in the Valspar Championship, where he hasn’t played since 2013. Day, 31, has had some back issues in his career. But his finish last week shows he is healthy for now.
“The hard thing about injuries is no matter how many times you’ve had them, it feels like your world is ending,’’ said Day, who has won 12 times on the PGA Tour. “It honestly feels like, is this going to be the last time I’m going to pick up a club? It’s not great for you mentally to come back from an injury, so you confidence kind of takes a little bit of a hit. But overall I feel good about it.’’
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis played in Monday’s celebrity Pro-Am. He also paid a visit to the Player’s Championship in Ponte Vedra Beach on Wednesday before the tournament started. He did not play the TPC Sawgrass course.
After his Monday round he said he gained an appreciation for the pros who play the Copperhead Course.
“You’ve got to hone the craft and that’s what these guys do every day,’’ DeSantis said. “It takes a lot of time, a lot of work and a lot of dedication. But I think this course is just a beautiful golf course. It’s set up really well. I think it’s going to be a great tournament.’’
As for his prediction on who is going to win?
“If you look in the Jupiter (Florida) area there are so many good players in that 25-mile little area,’’ he said. “I’ll go ahead and say one of the Jupiter guys, maybe Dustin Johnson. If you win here then you go into Augusta in really good shape.’’
For the record, DeSantis made that same prediction last week at the Players Championship. Rory McIlroy, who won the tournament and is from Ireland, now lives in Jupiter.
Tommy Fleetwood, who finished tied for fifth at the Players Championship, withdrew this week. He is ranked 11th in the World Golf Rankings. Daniel Berger, Abraham Ancer, Martin Laird, Alex Neren and Cameron Smith also withdrew. Roger Sloan, Kramer Hickok, Seth Reeves, Hank Labioda and Kyle Jones are all now in the field.
Those planning to attend the practice rounds on Tuesday or the Pro-Am on Wednesday will notice one of the PGA Tour’s rules changes. Players are allowed to wear shorts while playing in non-competitive rounds beginning this year.
Also, players have the option of leaving the flag stick in while putting. And if a drop is required due to an unplayable lie, the drop must be taken from knee height. It used to be from shoulder height.
When/Where: Thursday - Sunday, Innisbrook Golf Resort, Copperhead Course, Palm Harbor
Tickets: Tuesday (free), Wednesday ($10), Thursday, Friday, Sunday ($39), Saturday ($49). Go to Valsparchampionship.com
Defending champion: Paul Casey
Purse: $6.7 million ($1,170,00 to winner)
TV: Thursday – Friday 2-6 p.m. on Golf Channel; Saturday-Sunday 3-6 on NBC
Schedule: Tuesday – Professional practice rounds; Wednesday – Pro-Am; Thursday – Sunday – Competitive rounds.
Social media: @ValsparChamp