Craig Perks: "My own expectations ruined me"

The 2002 Players champion on his stunning victory and how his game fell apart in the years after

THE Players Championship has only been going since 1974. To help create its own aura and special piece of history it cried out for a story to tell from its winner. Craig Perks provided a rich chapter a decade ago.

The New Zealander only joined the PGA Tour in 2000 and spent his first two seasons missing cuts as often he made them.

But the 2002 season was very different and he closed out his win at Sawgrass in more impressive fashion than most in the history of the game. Some statement, but very true.

In the last three holes he used the putter just once, holing a chip for eagle on the 16th, knocking in a 35-footer on the infamous island hole before another chip-in at the last, this time for par, for a two-shot victory.

In commentary, Johnny Miller described it as the ‘three greatest hole-outs I’ve ever seen’.

Handing over the trophy, the defending champion Tiger Woods, not one for hyberbole, hailed Perks as ‘unbelievable’.

First timers don’t tend to do well at Sawgrass, how did you learn the course so quickly?

That is always posed to players at Augusta and at Sawgrass you also have to learn the nuances pretty quickly.

At the time my short game was pretty good and we played The Players in March so it wasn’t that penal off the tee at that time of year. The severity of the course is around the greens and that was my strength.

I had played well early in the season on the Florida Swing on the Bermuda grass and I was honoured to be in the field and it helped me to enjoy the experience.

There was no pressure on me to do well and I embraced everything about the tournament.

You played with Tiger at Doral earlier in the season, how much did that help?

That really helped. Going back in time I was less than a 50 per cent cut guy for my career on the PGA Tour and that season I made all four cuts on the West Coast on the poa annua greens, which was unusual for me, and I played reasonably well at Doral.

I played with Tiger on the Sunday, it was a phenomenal experience, it was chaotic to be in that rock concert sort of atmosphere and I handled myself well and learned a lot from it.

I vividly remember missing a short putt on 18 but ended up fifth and felt comfortable in that environment. I then made the cut at Bay Hill and went to Sawgrass expecting to play well.

Would the 17th at Sawgrass be a better hole as the 8th?

I actually think where it is makes it even better.

The last three holes are a fascinating stretch – there is peril everywhere and it would lose a lot of lustre anywhere else.

It is a great hole for the length it is. There has been talk of making it longer but it works so well as you are supposed to hit the green with a 9 iron or a wedge.
If it was devoid of water it would be one of the easiest holes they play on the tour.
I played with Tiger on the Sunday, it was a phenomenal experience, it was chaotic to be in that rock concert sort of atmosphere and I handled myself well.

At that point you hadn’t played in a Major, did you feel under a different type of pressure?

I had tried to qualify for the US Open but didn’t get in. People look at me a bit cock-eyed when I say the pressure of being at the Players wasn’t too overbearing. I was always around the cut on a Friday – that was always more nerve-wracking.

I was in the final group on the Sunday and had a comfortable pairing with Carl Paulson who had come up through the ranks of the Nationwide Tour and we were just in a little bubble.

We didn’t have a huge gallery until we reached the little amphitheatre of the last three holes.

As things got ramped up it became a little bit more electric but, for me, it was like the old cliche of taking one shot at a time.

What I did really well was have amnesia, whatever had gone before was quickly forgotten.

When would you start thinking of the 17th?

I started to think of it when I made the turn. It is a fascinating hole, I hadn’t grown up watching the Players like I had the Masters or Open but I had seen all the disasters of people like Lenny Mattiace and Bob Tway.

You have that in the back of your mind but it comes to the forefront when you walk past the trees about 120 yards short of the 16th green.

You hear all the roars and groans and you look across at the island green that is sitting there waiting for you.

How long did the finish take to sink in?

I’m not sure it ever really has. I think about it on a daily basis. I was two shots behind going into Sunday the following year and I then realised how difficult it was to actually win this event.

I have embraced it but I haven’t actually sat down and enjoyed it. My mentality when I won was, which I told my wife when I was getting ready to accept the trophy from Tiger, are you ready for Augusta?

I never took a moment to stop and think about what I’d accomplished. The goal leaving New Zealand was to play on the PGA Tour, now I had won one of its biggest events.

Do you think your career would have followed a different path had you won a ‘regular’ event?

When I won I felt like I had to change my focus  and live up to people’s expectations and the ones I put on myself.

I am glad what happened actually happened. As we’ve seen often already this year it is very difficult to win.

Nearly every day someone will come up and say that was the greatest finish and that is incredible.

From a longevity standpoint it might have been beneficial to win a smaller event and fully understand the big changes in your life but I wouldn’t change a thing.

Was there anything in particular that contributed to your game going south?

I got some great advice from Ian Baker-Finch at the Deutsche Bank and he said not to change a single thing.

I listened, but maybe only half-heartedly. I changed equipment companies, but I don’t think it was that big a deal, I stuck with the Titleist ball (the most important thing), but I changed caddies and my coach. Thank goodness, I kept with my wife.

The big thing that really fell apart was my driving. I went searching for the answer, I looked at my stats at the end of 2002 when I finished 36th on the Money List and I saw how bad a ball striker I was.

I thought I had to change to get better rather than what I had just accomplished.
I got a little wayward with my focus, it was all about the swing.

I worked with Butch Harmon for a while and one of Hank Haney’s right-hand guys and I lost the art of scoring and just playing golf.

I worked as hard as anybody out there and I got very little reward and I lost a lot of trust in these instructors and in myself.

How bad did your driving get?

I was hitting about 35 per cent of fairways, I was hitting two or three balls out of bounds every round and there was a lot of anxiety every time I stepped on to a tee.

My irons and short game were still great but I had a mental block off the tee. By the end of my career I was embarrassed to go out and play.

When my exemption ran out it was a very easy decision to bow out. There was no freedom to my swing, I was afraid of where it was going. I was hanging on for dear life.

Was there a round where you thought ‘enough is enough’?

I was still playing with some very high-profile players. In one event I played with David Duval and Tiger on Thursday and Friday and it had got to the point where I had difficulty getting to the 1st tee.

There is a lot of compassion out there, they still want to beat your brains out but they’re not looking down on you.

I thought I was getting in the way of them playing their best. I was always looking for my ball and I had a rules official come out for three or four holes on the trot and we were two holes behind. So it was easy to step away.

How did you get involved working as an analyst?

In 2008 I went to a Champions Dinner at Sawgrass and a gentleman from the PGA Tour entertainment asked if I’d like to do some commentary work for the ‘Live at 17’ analysis for the tour’s website.

I had no plans so jumped in there on Thursday and did reasonably well at explaining what the players were thinking so I then did some work for the international feed and I ended up doing both for all four rounds.

When I got home they asked if I would carry on working for the international feed and I did that and the website for two years.

Then the Golf Channel got in touch and I did the Nationwide Tour and some PGA Tour events for the last few years.

Did they give you training?

I have really had no direction, I have just tried to be open and honest and always tried to remember how tough this game is and, if someone has what looks like a quite straightforward shot and then hits it off the world, then explain there might be some other factors involved.

It has been a nice transition and it’s great to still be involved without the daily grind of practising and getting stressed.

Who is the most impressive close up?

The most dynamic European would have to be Rory McIlroy, I followed him at the Match Play and the way he drives the ball is incredible.

He also has the flair, the power, the precision, the charisma. Even at his age he already has all the attributes to be the best player for a very long time.

I also expect Lee Westwood to have a great year. I like Kyle Stanley and Keegan Bradley too.

Previous article
Next article