Nothing ramps up speculation in golf like an opening in the broadcast booth.
Paul Azinger and NBC Sports failed to reach an agreement on a new contract for the lead analyst. Those close to Azinger said he had planned on working one more year, but NBC has been in a cost-cutting mode and negotiations didn’t get very far.
That explains why Azinger said he was surprised and disappointed.
NBC has two golf events left this year, the Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas -- marking the return of Tiger Woods -- and the PNC Championship in Orlando, Florida, where Woods is likely to be playing with his son.
So who’s next? NBC has had two lead analysts -- Johnny Miller and Azinger -- since 1990.
Justin Leonard had been working for NBC until he returned to playing on the PGA Tour Champions this year. Reached at home Monday night, Leonard had no insight on NBC’s plans and said only, “I’m enjoying my playing gig.”
David Duval also played extensively on the PGA Tour Champions after his work at NBC Golf Channel where he delivered cerebral commentary. He was at a resort not far from Denver with his wife and didn’t know Azinger wasn’t returning until a day after the announcement.
“Would I listen? Of course,” Duval said Monday night when asked if he had interest. “But no one has reached out.”
Otherwise, names are being kicked around from Brad Faxon to Brandel Chamblee, whose work has been exclusively on shows before and after tournament rounds. Former U.S. Open champion Geoff Ogilvy, one of golf’s most insightful players, and former Ryder Cup captain Paul McGinley of Ireland also come to mind.
NBC also recently let go of Brandt Packer, a producer for 11 years with versality of working PGA Tour, PGA Tour Champions, college and other prominent amateur events.
“It was not my decision,” Packer said. “I would have loved to be back with them.”
NBC has not commented on its cuts except to thank Azinger for his work and wish him well.
The Ryder Cup celebration didn’t end in Rome, at least not for Shane Lowry and Rory McIlroy.
In the second part of an interview with The Irish Independent, they talk about their flight home to South Florida and then McIlroy inviting Lowry over for lunch the next day. A bottle of wine was opened. And then another. And lunch turned into dinner.
Captain Luke Donald soon joined them, as did Michael Jordan.
“Rory and Luke started texting him, and the next thing we’re sitting there drinking with Michael Jordan, just the four of us,” Lowry said. “He’s very much a pro-USA guy. I think it was the first Ryder Cup he hadn’t been to in 25 years, so we gave him a good slagging.”
McIlroy said Jordan stayed from 6-9 p.m. Among the topics: Pay for play, of course.
“He told a story about the U.S. basketball team, the Dream Team at the Olympics in ‘92. ‘Do you not think I could have got paid to play in the Olympics?’” he said. “‘These people are missing the point of what it means.’
“He saw the long-term value of winning an Olympics, and said he ended up doing way better than if he had taken money there and then.”
McIlroy said Lowry desperately wanted a photo of the group, but as a fellow sporting figure, “He doesn’t need that.”
“But … myself, Rory, Luke and MJ sitting around talking about the Ryder Cup,” Lowry said. “Not really how I envisioned the celebrations.”
Rose Zhang turned pro and hit the ground running. And running.
She won in her pro debut at the Mizuho Americas Open at Liberty National. She had top 10s in three majors. And then she cooled significantly, going seven straight tournaments without a top 10. She played 16 times, including the Solheim Cup in Spain.
And now it’s time for a break, which means she likely will be grinding more than ever.
She’s going back to school.
Zhang is determined to finish her degree at Stanford, which is on a quarter system. She plans to take 22 units in the January-March quarter, meaning she won’t play but a few LPGA events, if any.
“It’ll be a good time for me to be grinding somewhere else apart from the golf course,” Zhang said. “So I’ll be kind of taking that time to go back and study in person. And we have the Asia swing, Florida swing, so it’s to be determined on whether or not I’m playing those yet.”
The LPGA has two Florida events in January, a three-week Asia swing that ends March 10 and then three tournaments in California, Arizona and Las Vegas. The first major, the Chevron Championship, is April 18-21.
“I am 55 percent done with my graduation, which means I’m going to have to be working a little harder in the next couple years if I want to simultaneously play golf and study,” she said.
Dylan Frittelli finished at No. 173 in the FedEx Cup and was the first player to be listed in a European tour field under “Category 12.” That’s for PGA Tour players who finished between No. 126 and No. 200 in the FedEx Cup.
Frittelli is playing the Joburg Open in his native South Africa. No one is playing under that category in the other European tour event this week at the Australian PGA, and it remains unclear how many such players will take advantage of the new option.
The category only allows five players in an event.
They have until Wednesday to decide if they want to take the offer for the remaining three European tour events this year (two in South Africa, one in Mauritius), and until Dec. 20 to decide if they want to play events early in 2024 schedule.
Meanwhile, the leading 10 players (not already PGA Tour members) from the final Race to Dubai get PGA Tour cards for 2024, a list led by Adrian Meronk of Poland. They have until Dec. 1 to decide whether to accept membership, although the PGA Tour has been told all 10 are expected to take cards.
The others are Ryan Fox, Victor Perez, Thorbjorn Olesen, Alexander Bjork, Sami Valimaki, Robert MacIntyre, Matthieu Pavon, Jorge Campillo and Ryo Hisatsune.
Atthaya Thitikul won the Vare Trophy for the lowest scoring average (69.53) on the LPGA this year. She is the second Thai to win the award, joining Ariya Jutanugarn in 2018. … Luke List won $300,000 through RSM’s “Birdies Fore Love” competition for recording the most birdies (or better) over the seven events of the 2023 FedEx Cup Fall. The money will be donated to List’s choice of a children- and/or family-focused charitable organization … Ludvig Aberg shot 65 or lower 12 times since his pro debut in the Canadian Open, the most of any player during that stretch. … The PGA of America and Sky Sports extended their broadcast partnership for three years for live coverage in Britain and Ireland of the PGA Championship and Senior PGA Championship.
Five years ago, Ariya Jutanugarn was the only LPGA player to surpass $2 million for the season. This year, Lilia Vu led three players at $3 million or more, and four others surpassed the $2-million mark.
“My fondest memory afterwards was the bus ride. We started singing some of the songs the fans had been singing and everyone was involved, players, caddies and wives, and it was so much fun. We could have stayed on that bus all night.” -- Rory McIlroy to The Irish Independent on the bus ride to the hotel after winning the Ryder Cup.