Tour veteran hits his stride after years of grind
AKRON, Ohio — Pat Perez is in his 16th season on the PGA Tour and finally feeling like he’s in the big leagues.
For the first time in his career, Perez is eligible for all four majors and the four World Golf Championships.
And at No 11 in the FedEx Cup standings with three weeks before the playoffs begin, the 41-year-old American is on track to make it to East Lake for the Tour Championship for the first time.
One year removed from shoulder surgery that he feared might end his career, the grass has never looked greener for Perez.
“I can’t even describe it,” he said on Tuesday ahead of the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone in Akron. “The likelihood of me being in this tournament? I was No 334 in the world. To have the year I’ve had, it’s just amazing.”
He wasn’t sure which club to hit off the 10th tee in practice this week because his only Bridgestone appearance was in 2009, the year Tiger Woods set a PGA Tour record by winning for the seventh time on the same course. Perez finished 12 shots behind.
Perez and Woods go way back, and it involves more than some fiery (and accurate) comments he made about Woods on his radio show earlier this year.
He beat Woods by eight shots in winning the 1993 Junior World Championship at Torrey Pines. Later that year, Perez won the Junior PGA Championship at Pinehurst with a 72-hole score of 271, which remains the tournament record in the boys’ division.
But it took Perez losing so much — mainly his health and an equipment contract — for him to realize he could have done so much more.
His left shoulder was in so much pain early in 2016 that his only option was surgery, a perilous prospect at that stage of his career. He slept on his couch for a month because it hurt to get in and out of bed. He wasn’t planning to play again until 2017 rolled around.
Then he received a lifeline in the form of a sponsor’s exemption from the CIMB Classic in Malaysia, which offered a short field, no cut and a $7 million purse.
Perez finished in the middle of the pack, tied for seventh two weeks later in Las Vegas and then won the OHL Classic in Mexico in just his third tournament back.
Just like that, Perez went from wondering if his shoulder would allow him to play again to spending time in the company of the world’s best players on the biggest stages. Why now? “I think as a whole, I’m just so much more at ease with life,” he said.
“It’s amazing when you grind, grind, grind forever and don’t really have problems. And when it’s taken away from you, I just had a whole different vision. I can have it all taken away. A shoulder can go out again. So I guess I’m putting everything into it.”
Perez already has made over $3.5 million in 2017, nearly twice as much money as his best season.
He was never more giddy than when he received his official letter from the USGA in late May that he would be exempt into the US Open because he was among the top 60 in the world (a career-best No 40). It was the first time he didn’t have to go through qualifying.
“I might just go out to the qualifier to watch,” he joked that day.
“I might stand on the 18th green and read my letter to everyone coming off.”
Perez has a brand of humor that smacks of bravado and rubs some people the wrong way.
He has a radio show in which he praised Woods for being the needle that moves golf, and then offered a blunt assessment that Woods knows he can’t beat anyone right now and that if Tiger didn’t play the Masters, he wouldn’t play the rest of the year.
Woods didn’t play the Masters, had a fourth back surgery a few months later and is out the rest of the year.
Even so, the criticism was so severe that Perez abandoned social media. He said he recently sent Woods a text — they have known each other since they were teenagers — and Woods messaged him back. It was important to clear the air.
Perez finally hit a wall, though partially by design. He missed the cut in the US Open by one shot, took a month off to recharge for a busy schedule at the end of the year, and missed the cut in the British Open. If anything, it hurt his prospects of making the Presidents Cup team.
“He wants to be part of this team in the worst way,” said US captain Steve Stricker, who played a practice round with Perez at Royal Birkdale.
“He hasn’t been playing as well of late as he did at the start of the year, but there’s four events left. He’s on our radar, for sure.”
Even if he doesn’t make it, Perez feels he has made his point, with most of that motivation aimed at sponsor Callaway for dropping him last year when he was on the mend.
“It was more the fact everyone thought I couldn’t come back and do it,” he said. “And there was a little fear. I didn’t want to lose my card. I came back and was mad, just mad enough to prove all these guys wrong.”
One of golf ’s most temperamental characters, it might have been the first time Perez channeled his anger in the right way.
“Yeah,” Perez said with a chuckle. “That’s probably right.”
The likelihood of me being in this tournament? I was No 334 in the world. To have the year I’ve had, it’s just amazing.” Pat Perez
Pat Perez drives off the 13th tee during Tuesday’s practice round for the Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio.