Paul Azinger knew he was back the minute Ben Crenshaw's caddy began giving him grief. Needling never felt so good.
In perhaps the most memorable round of his life, Azinger shot a 76 on Friday to mark his return to golf after a nine-month bout with cancer."This is my element," Azinger said. "This is where I want to be. I like hanging around with the guys, being in the locker room. This is normal for us. It's not normal being home with nothing to do."
That Azinger was 11 shots out of the lead mattered not at all to the gallery that cheered him as he started play and stood to applaud at the 18th hole as they made the turn to the front nine.
The lovefest started on the 10th tee, where Azinger's round began, when announcer Randy Hutton said: "From Bradenton, Florida, please welcome back to the tour, Paul Azinger!"
Azinger's eyes filled with tears. He had to back away from his ball and take some deep breaths. All the while the applause rolled over him.
"It just continued and continued," Azinger said. "Crenshaw's caddy said, `. . . we're going to get timed.' I didn't want to heel-shank a ball and wipe out some fan out on my first shot. I had to step back and suck some air until I was ready to approach the ball."
Then he banged a long drive, straight and true. The long wait, all of it, was finally over.
"Physically, I'm tired and emotionally I'm tapped out," Azinger said. "After that big ovation at the start, I just walked around in a bit of a haze for awhile. I think tomorrow will probably be a little bit easier for me."
A large throng followed the threesome of Azinger, Corey Pavin and Crenshaw around the course, and stood at least 10-deep around every green. Hundreds then would scramble along the ropes and through the trees up the next fairway.
"I think the best part of the whole thing was playing with Paul," said Pavin, whose 66 left him one stroke back of first-round leader Fred Funk. "The large ovation he got on the first tee just made me smile. It's wonderful to see how much the fans love Paul and people who come back."
"It's like the final hole on the last day of a major," associate tournament director Jack DeCou said as he watched the spectacle on 18. "I've never seen anything like this in a regular tournament, and certainly not in the first round."
Azinger's return to golf comes a week before he begins defense of his PGA Championship at Tulsa, Okla.
Funk, winless since 1992, shot a 65 over waterlogged Warwick Hills Golf and Country Club for a one-stroke lead over Pavin and three over Russ Cochran. Tom Kite, Davis Love III and Duffy Waldorf were among 12 golfers at 69.