One year af­ter surgery, Perez fi­nally in good com­pany

The Washington Times Daily - - SPORTS - BY DOUG FERGUSON

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 with three weeks be­fore the play­offs begin, he is on track to make it to East Lake for the Tour Cham­pi­onship for the first time.

At age 41, one year re­moved from shoul­der surgery that he feared might end his ca­reer, the grass has never looked greener.

“I can’t even de­scribe it,” Perez said. “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 at Fire­stone dur­ing a prac­tice round Tues­day be­cause his one and only ap­pear­ance in this World Golf Cham­pi­onship 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 No. 4 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 in 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. And 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, 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 U.S. Open be­cause he was among the top 60 in the world (a ca­reer-best No. 40 for Perez). 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 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 Woods 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. And now for the fin­ish­ing kick. Perez fi­nally hit a wall, though par­tially by de­sign. He missed the cut in the U.S. 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.

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