Tour veteran hits his stride af­ter years of grind

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - SPORTS -

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

DOUG FERGUSON / AP

Pat Perez drives off the 13th tee dur­ing Tues­day’s prac­tice round for the Bridge­stone In­vi­ta­tional at Fire­stone Coun­try Club in Akron, Ohio.

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