Craig Perks provided the hottest finish on a Sunday in the history of The Players when he captured the title in 2002, in commentary Johnny Miller described it as the “three greatest hole-outs I’ve ever seen”.
His last 14 holes consisted of only two pars as he won by two from Stephen Ames. It give him a five-year exemption but, as it transpired, it turned out to be his only win in 202 starts.
When would you start thinking of the 17th?
When I made the turn. It is a fascinating hole, I hadn’t grown up watching The Players like I had The Masters or The 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.
What did you make of the course as a whole?
You 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 it.
You used your putter just once over the closing three holes, finishing eagle-birdie-par?
I’m not sure that finish has ever really sunk in. 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.
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. I hadn’t even played in a major to that point, I had tried to qualify for the US Open. 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.
You played with Tiger earlier in the season, how much did that contribute towards your win?
We played together at Doral and 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.
How much did winning The Players change your life?
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. 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.
How bad did your game get?
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 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.
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.