Backspin: Sawgrass 2002

Matt Cooper recalls the dramatic conclusion to the 2002 Players’ Championship that had even Tiger Woods looking on in wonder.

When New Zealander Craig Perks teed it up in the 2002 Players’ Championship he was ranked 205th in the world and boasted just three top-five finishes in 65 starts on the PGA Tour.
But four days later, when he left the TPC Sawgrass Stadium course, Perks’ career was transformed.
He had arrived as a no-hoper but departed as the winner of the unofficial “fifth major”.
The story of how he accomplished this win is an extraordinary one – a tale of one magical final round which ended in absurdly dramatic style.
Perks earned himself his shot at glory with rounds of 68 and 69 on Friday and Saturday which left him in second place, one shot behind the leader Carl Paulson.
Tour veterans Rocco Mediate and Jeff Sluman were tied for third and Sluman took note of Perks as he left the driving range that final morning. “He was swinging it like Ernie Els,” he said. “It made me wonder.”
What followed in the next five hours would make lots of other people wonder, too.
Paulson started his round in horrible style, making five bogeys in the first six holes. He never recovered from the shock and would limp home with a 77.
Sergio Garcia briefly threatened to challenge but the putts refused to drop so, as the likes of Mediate, Sluman and Billy Andrade went backwards, Stephen Ames emerged as the biggest threat – his round of 67 took him from outside the top 20 at the start of the day to clubhouse leader on a six-under-par total of 282.
And what of Perks as all this happened? Well the New Zealander was in the lead one minute, facing disaster the next, back in position on the next hole, before plunging the depths once again.
Between the 5th and 17th holes he had just one par. The other scores were five birdies, one eagle and no less than six bogeys.
He could barely find a fairway and wasn’t having the best of times scrambling, but whenever he gave himself a birdie putt he made it – which was just as well because he also managed to miss two putts from inside two feet.
Standing in the rough to the side of the green on the par five 16th hole (his approach had gone perilously close to the water two feet behind him), Perks was one shot behind Ames – himself watching the final groups on a big screen beside the putting green. Neither man knew quite what was about to hit them.
Perks chopped down on his ball, chunked it onto the green and watched it drop in the hole for eagle – a one-shot deficit had become a one-shot lead.
“It was a great shot,” he said later. “But the defining shot was always going to the tee shot to 17. I’d seen so many people make mistakes there.”
But Perks not only found the green, he then drained a 30-foot birdie putt allowing him to walk to the final tee with a two shot-buffer.
A bogey five on the last would suffice, but it is a testing drive: the hole is protected by water all the way down the left, by mounds and trees down the right.
Perks had struggled to hit a fairway all day so when he pulled the driver out of his bag onlookers covered their eyes.
When the ball veered horribly right, Perks too must have felt like hiding.
The ball had come to rest amongst the trees and the only way he could find the green in regulation was to aim beneath the branches and bounce the ball along the cart-track.
It was an insane option – but just the sort of plan a no-hoper might contemplate in the white-hot furnace of competition.
Fortunately he pulled himself together at the last second and chipped the ball sideways onto the fairway.
But the drama refused to end as his 8-iron approach sailed beyond the green. He now needed to complete a tricky up-and-down for victory and Ames’ heart rate had increased even if he pretended otherwise.
Behind the green, Perks’ wife Maureen was stood alongside PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem. “This is no gimme,” she said of the chip.
At which point her husband flipped the ball up in the air and waited for it to reveal his destiny.
“As soon as it landed I knew I had won,” he said afterwards. “But when it went in, that was an incredible emotion.”
“The three greatest hole-outs I’ve seen!” cried the TV commentator.
Fifteen minutes later a clearly moved Tiger Woods handed Perks the trophy. “To win the way you did,” he said. “Craig – you’re unbelievable.”
The 35-year-old won $1,065,000, which just about trumped his previous winner’s cheque of $15,000 from a win on the Hooters Tour.
He jumped from 205th to 65th in the world, a record one-week leap in the 16-year history of the rankings.
But as so often happens when a player comes from nowhere to win, he soon returned to obscurity and seven years on he can finally begin to appreciate what went wrong.
Initially he struggled to cope with the new-found fame, the demands on his time and he tried to play as he thought the winner of an elite tournament should.
“I tried to play like a champion instead of being what I had been, just Craig Perks, a good player.”
He then became stuck in a rut, and later explained: “I looked at the negative side of where I finished in 2002 – so low in the ball-striking stats – instead of the positive side, which was the money list. I made radical changes to be more consistent. Then I lost confidence.”
At one stage his driving was so bad people whispered that he had the yips with the big stick.
He retained a friendship with Tiger Woods but even that made life difficult, as when he was paired with the world number one at Wachovia Championship in 2007 and shot 80-76.
“I was more embarrassed hitting those shots in front of Tiger than all the people,” he said.
Woods felt for his friend: “He’s such a great guy. For him to struggle the way he’s struggling, it pains you to watch, because you know the talent is there. You can see it. He’s just struggling right now.”
At the end of 2007 Perks retired from tour golf. “I had played poorly for too long,” he said. “I have no feeling at all, no regrets. When you give it all for so long and you aren’t competitive, it wasn’t a hard decision.”
When Perks left New Zealand for college in Louisiana, he never went back.
After his studies he took up a job as a cart boy at the Le Triomphe Golf Club and in a neat completion of the circle he has returned there as the new Director of Instruction, happy to be part of the community and content to remember the most thrilling round of his life.