As another Players Championship unfolds this week, rekindling memories of Tiger Woods’ “better than most” putt and Hal Sutton’s “be the right club today” swing, Craig Perks will be in a television trailer nearly 30 miles from the TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course, locked in on his duties as a commentator for PGA Tour Live, telling part of this year’s story.
Perks owns an unlikely page in Players history, the outlier in a list of winners salted with the names of Woods, Phil Mickelson, Rory McIlroy, Adam Scott, Fred Couples, Davis Love III and Jack Nicklaus.
Perks is the one-off, the blue-sky flash of lightning in a story of stars who, for one charmed weekend, turned in a performance seemingly sprinkled with magic dust at just the right moment.
He was a 35-year-old journeyman, ranked 203rd in the world who had missed more cuts than he had made in the previous three years, and he finished the 2002 Players Championship as if he had been touched by a divine hand.
A chip-in eagle at the par-5 16th when his second shot seemed bound for the water, a long birdie putt at the par-3 17th and a chip-in for par on the finishing hole when it all could have evaporated. Sis, boom, bah.
This week, as Perks has done for several years, he will be telling someone else’s story, understanding as well as anyone what can happen at the Stadium Course.
“It was an incredible finish. I won by two. The histrionics might be different, but I’m glad it played out the way it did,” Perks said from his home in Lafayette, Louisiana, where the New Zealand native has lived for more than 30 years.
“A lot of people remember me for that stunning finish, and I’m grateful for that. The game sometimes forgets you quickly, but the fans didn’t forget.”
“Sometimes fortune just falls on your shoulders.” – Craig Perks
The Players Championship victory defined his career, but it was a singular moment. It was the only PGA Tour event he won and, five years later, Perks was moving on from competitive golf.
After his victory, Perks found himself trying to live up to the title he had won. The win gave him a five-year exemption on tour, the golden ticket for a guy who had been to Q-school 12 times. It didn’t, however, change the arc of Perks’ career and may have hastened the end of his playing days.
On that Sunday 21 years ago, though, Perks crafted a story that gets retold annually when the PGA Tour returns to the Stadium Course.
“It’s kind of nostalgic this time of year,” said Carl Paulson, who had the 54-hole lead and was in the final pairing with Perks in 2002. “It was his career.”
After the third round in 2002, when all of the interview obligations were complete, Paulson and Perks found themselves together. Neither had won a PGA Tour event, but they would start Sunday ahead of what is typically the strongest field of the year.
They talked about where they found themselves and adopted a shared mantra: “Why not us?”
Even if he didn’t win the $1.08 million first prize, Perks thought to himself, a top-three finish could assure him of full tour status the following year.
When Pete Dye created the Stadium Course, he intentionally designed a three-hole finish built for drama. The par-5 16th tempts players to go for the green in two with water down the right side. The par-3 17th is a hold-your-breath tee shot. The par-4 18th has a ribbon of fairway sitting between water on the left and trees on the right.
Perks had one putt in his 3-2-4 finish, that being the long birdie at 17 which put him two ahead with one hole to play. He already had separated himself with the eagle at 16 which came within a few feet of being a disaster.
“When that ball was in midair, from my angle, it looked like it was going in the water,” Paulson said. “Instead, it landed on that teeny strip of grass and stayed there. Wow, that was awesome.”
When Perks chipped in for eagle, he raised his arms over his head, not knowing the best was yet to come.
Two strokes ahead playing 18, Perks drove it into the right trees and was forced to pitch out. His third shot finished off the right side of the green and, with Paulson facing a birdie putt, there was the potential for a two-stroke swing that would have forced a playoff between the two.
Instead, Perks chipped in again, Paulson three-putted and shock waves rippled across the property.
“Sometimes fortune just falls on your shoulders,” Perks said.
In 202 career starts on the PGA Tour, Perks had just seven top-10 finishes, but winning the Players Championship validated the years of struggle.
“I was obviously unheralded and didn’t have an illustrious résumé when I walked on the tee, but I had prepared my whole life for that moment,” Perks said. “Set aside the magnitude of the event, but the blood, sweat and tears everyone talks about, I had done that. I had this determination and desire to go out and compete well.”
Two weeks later, Perks found himself driving down Magnolia Lane to play in his first Masters. His world had changed almost instantly.
Perks shot 81 in the first round at Augusta National, and the good vibes that came from winning the Players Championship already were beginning to wane.
“I 100-percent tried to live up to being a Players champion. If you looked at the greats who had won that event, my name didn’t belong up there. I was the lowest-ranked player to win the Players Championship. There is some cruelty to that,” Perks said.
“It was an incredible accomplishment, but was I really deserving of it? In golf you are because it’s a standalone game. Then you try to keep living up to it. I wandered from home plate trying to get better.”
Perks isn’t the first player to fall victim to that.
“It’s a classic mistake a lot of people make,” Paulson said.
“You start searching for something different. If you go along with what you have, secure the foundation and improve the weaknesses, it could have been a 15-year career, but it was lucky to be a three- or four-year career after that.” – Craig Perks
By early 2008, Perks was moving into a television career, a door that opened because of his Players Championship victory. This year, he will do more than 20 events for PGA Tour Live and Golf Channel.
“Professionally, I don’t have many regrets. I was lucky to play out my five-year exemption. At some point I would get so frustrated, the toils of it all were becoming too much, and I struggled to play my last year,” Perks said.
“That’s what I worked my whole life for: to have a PGA Tour card. I never appreciated what I had accomplished. You start searching for something different. If you go along with what you have, secure the foundation and improve the weaknesses, it could have been a 15-year career, but it was lucky to be a three- or four-year career after that.”
Sitting in a trailer in St. Augustine this week, Perks will talk about what others are doing, navigating their way around a golf course designed to create stories. His is one of those stories that resonates more than 20 years later.
“I’m so grateful to accomplish what I did in ’02. Is it different now? It is,” Perks said.
“It is brought to my attention often, and I reflect on it fondly.”
There is a lingering lesson, too.
“Cherish the moment,” Perks said.
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