Paul Azinger doesn’t hold back about his breakup with NBC (and suggests who should replace him)

Paul Azinger is driving to Gator Creek Golf Club in Sarasota, Florida. He brought the fish for a fish fry and then he’s planning to peg it with his son-in-law and a couple of friends.

His mind is miles away from the Cognizant Classic in the Palm Beaches, what should’ve been the start of four straight weeks in the his home state calling out whoever might be choking his guts out on the PGA Tour for NBC. But in November, the network elected not to renew his contract, ending his four-year stint as its lead golf analyst. (NBC Sports declined to comment for this story.)

Instead, Azinger has been hanging on his boat, fishing frequently, and getting ready to get “his elbows dirty” partnering with Fry/Straka Global Golf Course Design to build the new riverside Miakka Golf Club in Myakka City, Florida.

“There’s always something to do, wash the wheels of your car,” he says during a phone conversation on Sunday. “It’s not too bad, and I’m not looking for a job either. I’ve had two full careers. I played the Tour for 30 years, I broadcast for about 18 years. I’m enjoying my life right now. I didn’t know I could enjoy it this much. I’m serious, I wake up with no schedule. It’s weird and it’s nice.”

And before he can be asked the obvious follow-up question, he adds, “I’m not missing golf in any capacity at all as a broadcaster. It’s hard work to be an analyst. It’s always stress and pressure. So I don’t really miss it that much. I just don’t like the way it ended.”

Before calling Azinger, one of my favorite people to talk about the game with, I wondered if it still might be too soon for him to talk on this topic.

It was not.

The inside story of NBC walking away from the negotiating table

Tour Championship
Paul Azinger and Dan Hicks on set during the second round of the 2019 Tour Championship at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta. (Photo: Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)

“They offered me the job,” Azinger said. “We had the weeks, the amount of days. Essentially, I was going to be on the road for two more weeks, and I wasn’t gonna make the same amount of money. So we’re making a counteroffer.”

Azinger was seeking a one-year renewal, which would line up contract talks with that of lead announcer Dan Hicks, whose contract expires at the end of 2024, Azinger says.

“Dan and I already had talked about it. I was ready to keep going. I thought I was gonna go for about five more years to be honest,” Azinger said. “I thought I would do at least one more year and then sign a four-year deal. They made the offer, my agent said ‘no, we’ll counteroffer the next day’. And they said, ‘Sorry, we’re moving on.’

“You know, it wasn’t a conversation with me, like, ‘What do you need Zinger? What do we need to do? Here’s our situation. You know, this is why we need you to accept this deal.’ There was no reason, it just was it’s complicated, it’s complicated. I was like, ‘How complicated can it be, bud?’ It’s money.

“For me to be able to do NBC was the greatest opportunity and blessing. I was the lead analyst at ABC, at ESPN, and at NBC and that was awesome. I’ve had two full careers and it was a great run. I’m so grateful that I had the chance to do NBC. I wish it could have ended up better for me. I was ready to keep going and I thought we were negotiating in good faith.”

Those negotiations were led by Sam Flood, NBC Sports executive vice president & president of production, who took over day-to-day oversight of Golf Channel production in August, replacing Mark Loomis. They also didn’t include Molly Solomon, executive vice president of content and executive producer, Golf Channel, from 2012-2023, who shifted her focus exclusively to the upcoming Summer Olympics as executive producer & president, NBC Olympics production.

Azinger had lost another advocate in Pete Bevacqua, who left his role as president of NBC Sports in March to become the athletic director at Notre Dame, his alma mater, and Azinger hadn’t had a chance to develop a relationship with his replacement, Rick Cordella, who was hired on Sept. 23.

“Sam Flood came in and was just, you know, just an a-hole about it. All we were doing was making a counteroffer, and they said, ‘No, that was take it or leave.’ And I said, ‘Sam, was that presented to us as take it or leave it?’ ‘It’s complicated, Zinger,’ he said. I talked to him for 23-24 minutes and every time I would ask him a question, it would be like, ‘Are you upset or something?’ We had [the parameters of a deal] done. Are we not supposed to negotiate with you? And he wouldn’t say anything. And it was like, ‘nope, we’re moving on.’ There was never anything like ‘Zinger, this is all we can do. This is our best shot.’

“My poor manager he’s sitting there like, ‘What happened?’ That’s how it went down. We just wish it would have ended differently, because honestly, I’m kind of happy it ended.”

Azinger addresses his replacement

Mike Tirico and Paul Azinger
Mike Tirico and Paul Azinger

Why is Azinger in retrospect “happy it ended?” Well, that opened up another can of worms. Add Azinger to the list of former greats who isn’t pleased with the state of professional golf and what money has done to scatter players to PGA Tour and LIV camps.

“The best players aren’t all playing PGA Tour tournaments. That’s over. Suddenly, the LIV Tour, let’s just say it like this: the PGA Tour has fast become the qualifier for LIV and it’s a sad day for golf,” Azinger says. “Yeah, I’ve watched a little bit and I’m not I’m not missing it that much. I’m not missing it at all.”

NBC/Golf Channel has yet to name a permanent replacement for Azinger. So far, this season it has rotated analysts from those already employed by the network – Brandel Chamblee and Paul McGinley – and current tour pros – Luke Donald at the Cognizant Classic and the Arnold Palmer Invitational and Kevin Kisner, who did The Sentry and WM Phoenix Open and is rumored to be in line to do the Players Championship.

“Well, there was no plan going forward except to make the broadcast less expensive,” Azinger says. “I think they’re going to settle on whatever is less expensive. Everything since I got there was just budget cut after budget cut. Everything was to make the broadcast cost less money. We went from having towers to all in the same booth. We eliminated a couple of drones. Occasionally, you lose the airplane or the blimp and then you lose the speed shots, that one big camera that covers the ball, you know from the tee as it flies over the water. You know they’re gonna pour all their money into the Players.”

Who would Azinger hire to take his place?

The Match IX
Commentators Christina Kim and Charles Barkley look on during Capital One’s The Match IX at The Park West Palm on February 26, 2024 in West Palm Beach, Florida. (Photo by Cliff Hawkins/Getty Images for The Match)

“Charles Barkley should be the analyst,” Azinger says. “He understands what it’s like for an athlete to try to pull it off at the end when his whole life is committed to something and he’s got his chance and the world’s watching. Barkley knows what that feels like. But Barkley probably is going to be more expensive, so that’s not what they’re shooting for… that’s the reality. Everything is about making it less expensive. It’s a shame.”

Replacing a legend

Johnny Miller, Paul Azinger, Dan Hicks, NBC
NBC’s golf broadcasters Johnny Miller, Paul Azinger, and Dan Hicks following Miller’s final live broadcast, the third round of the 2019 Waste Management Phoenix Open at TPC Scottsdale. (Photo: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Azinger had the unenviable task of following Johnny Miller. Whether viewers loved him or hated him, they waited with bated breath for the next provocative opinion from Miller’s beautiful mind during three decades for NBC. Miller passed the baton to Azinger, a 12-time Tour winner including the 1993 PGA Championship winer, during the third round of the 2019 WM Phoenix Open.

“I was a nervous wreck about it because I played golf with Gary Koch and with with Roger Maltbie. We’re competitors against each other, and they’re used to Johnny and I’m supposed to step in and be some expert. It was stressful for me,” Azinger says. “I would say it took me about a year and a half before I quit having kind of the cold sweats.”

Azinger also says that he was guarded against saying too much from the very beginning.

“Even just the very first week,” he recalls, “I make a comment about the rough being deeper than the hair on Don King’s head and I got shut down. ‘Don’t say that,’ and I’m like, ‘Why not?’

“The last three years, I started to really enjoy it, got to know the younger players really well. I mean, I made mistakes in the booth, which I think mistakes are kind of great because people can roast you and give themselves some content and I can handle it.”

Azinger may not miss being at the Cognizant and sitting out a rain delay and coming back for a Monday finish, but he’ll miss the U.S. Open in June.

“That’s the biggest win that an American can have, certainly any player, it makes their career,” Azinger says. “The stress, pressure, preparation, all that goes in to four night’s sleep, getting ready to play that tournament, and being able to have control of your your game, it’s the hardest tournament so I’m gonna miss that the most.”

Azinger's 'over' the PGA Tour but what about LIV (and PGA Tour Champions)?

2024 LIV Golf Jeddah
Greg Norman, LIV Golf CEO, walks down the 18th fairway during day one of the LIV Golf Invitational – Jeddah at Royal Greens Golf & Country Club in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. (Photo: Francois Nel/Getty Images)

Azinger wants to make clear he isn’t bitter and adds, “I just see it as it is.” He has no plans to call pro golf again, but what if Greg Norman came calling and asked him to do LIV?

“I would not rule that out. But it ain’t gonna happen,” he says laughing and repeating that it won’t be happening. “It would be stupid for me to say, ‘oh, no, I’m ruling that out.’ I don’t rule anything out except the Tour.”

Without mentioning if CBS, the other network that shares the PGA Tour’s TV contract, has reached out to him, Azinger says he wouldn’t be interested in calling the Tour under the current leadership. Azinger, who won the Memorial in 1993, is a member of the Memorial’s Captain’s Club and sits on Jack Nicklaus’s Captain’s Council.

Last May, during tournament week, Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan delivered a report on the state of the Tour and efforts to grow the game and junior golf to the council. Just a matter of days later, on June 6, Monahan was grinning on TV alongside Yasir Al-Rumayann, the head of Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, announcing a commercial agreement.

“He didn’t even tell Jack,” Azinger says. “(Jay) gave that report in front of Jack and the heads of the USGA, R&A, PGA, the Masters. There’s about 15 of us in there and I think understandably, everyone in that room is a little down on Jay. He’d been negotiating with (PIF) for six months. What the heck, why didn’t you tell everybody that? Why didn’t you just say that? That could have been when he let it out but he didn’t and he started the battle and then he switched teams in the middle of it and Rory’s fallen on the sword for him, you know?” Azinger says.

“He’s working his butt off, you got to give him credit that he’s hung in there somehow, I guess, and you got to give him credit that he’s putting together billions of dollars because it appears to be the case. His intentions are to do the best for the players but he just didn’t handle it right.”

That’s half the reason that Azinger has no interest in calling the PGA Tour. Here’s the other half: “I don’t want to get in too much hot water and make big headlines or anything but the best players aren’t on the PGA Tour,” he says. “They’re scattered all over the place and that’s a sad day that’s similar to what happened in tennis. The best players are going to be at the four majors, just like tennis, and it’s unfolding right before our eyes.

“I’d rather call the Senior Tour than the PGA Tour to tell you the truth. I’m over the PGA Tour. To call the best senior players in the world, at least they’re the best.”

Azinger, 64, only played four times on PGA Tour Champions and none since 2010. Asked if there’s any chance he’ll try to play senior golf, he says, “I’ll let you know after today if I make seven birdies.”

Story originally appeared on GolfWeek