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Bunker birdie saves Azinger

With a loss looming, he steps up on the 18th, earning a half-point for U.S.

By BOB HARIG, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 30, 2002

With a loss looming, he steps up on the 18th, earning a half-point for U.S.

SUTTON COLDFIELD, England -- The situation was dire, and ultimately the outcome would not change the result of the Ryder Cup.

But when Paul Azinger stood in the sand beside the 18th green at the Belfry on Sunday afternoon, the entire competition was in his hands. A birdie meant hope. Anything less and the Europeans would be celebrating in his midst.

Moments earlier, the stands around the 18th green had erupted in raucous cheering as Azinger's 6-iron approach missed the green and was all but buried in the bunker.

So Azinger sized up the shot, stepped out of the bunker to look it over some more, then asked his caddie if he had to hole it.

"When he didn't say anything, I figured I had to make it," Azinger said.

And he did.

Azinger splashed the ball delicately onto the green, then watched it trickle down the hole and drop into the cup for an improbable birdie.

And when Sweden's Niclas Fasth missed his 20-foot birdie putt, the match was somehow tied, and the Americans earned a half-point, keeping alive their hopes.

"I pretty much knew the situation in the fairway," said Azinger, who pulled within one after Fasth bogeyed the 16th. "I was trying to get a 6-iron in there on the back shelf, and I just pulled it. The ball was so bad I thought it was plugged. I got lucky."

Azinger, at least, has a highlight reel memory from this Ryder Cup. A pick of captain Curtis Strange, the Bradenton resident played just twice, losing in an opening-day four-ball match with Tiger Woods and halving the match Sunday.

At the time, it staved off elimination. A few moments later, when Ireland's Paul McGinley parred the 18th, the Europeans had enough points for victory.

Azinger never led in his match with Fasth, a Swede who finished second to David Duval at the 2001 British Open. Fasth birdied the first three holes to go 2-up, and was 2-up again after birdie at the 13th.

"I wanted to fight the guy all day," Azinger said in the heated moments after his match near the 18th. "He was pumping his fists on the first hole. He pumped his fists when he hit the fairway. I just wanted to fight him."

But later, calmer, Azinger gave Fasth his due: "He definitely outplayed me all day. He was ahead all day. He was really into it, pumping his fists. He had a great time. He's probably hoarse, he was jacking the crowd up the whole time.

"It never looked like he would lose or be halved. And I just got lucky. It was a great moment for me. I wish it would have been enough."

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