- Tim Rosaforte
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He was just another passenger on a commercial flight into Charlotte, N.C., last week, pulling his golf bag off the conveyer belt and heading toward another missed cut on the PGA Tour. For Craig Perks, the journey through golf has been this way for most of the past five years.
Since winning the Players Championship in 2002, Perks has fallen into the land of obscurity, making just seven cuts since the start of 2005. But last week's Wachovia Championship was different. Perks was paired with Tiger Woods in the first two rounds, which meant that despite all his struggles since the win at Sawgrass, Perks was thrust back into the spotlight at Quail Hollow Club. There was no place to hide.
Perks said he felt calm and focused Thursday, but a horrendous finish, in which he dropped 8 shots in the last seven holes, brought him limping home with an 80. He missed the cut with a 76 the next day and headed home to Lafayette, La., to regroup for this week's Players, five years after his improbable victory -- when Woods, the 2001 champion, handed him the trophy. "I was more embarrassed hitting those shots in front of Tiger than in front of all the people watching," Perks told the Charlotte Observer.
Perks has not played on the weekend of a PGA Tour event since last year's Zurich Classic in New Orleans. He skipped the West Coast this year, but Wachovia was his fourth missed cut in five events -- with a WD after an opening-round 77 at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Perks hasn't played enough rounds to qualify for a statistical ranking, but if he did, his 74.59 scoring average would rank last. If the tour were casting for its own version of "Lost," Perks would get the starring role.
"Right now, I find it frustrating to put in the hours and hours and hours," the 40-year-old New Zealand native said. "At one point last year, when I couldn't break 80, I was very close to walking away. I had had enough. I felt good about what I had done and who I was as a person. I had no trouble walking away. I just didn't want to leave on that note. Right now, I'm just trying to see some results, see something positive. If I don't, I've had a good run."
When Boo Weekley chipped in twice to save par on the last two holes of the Verizon Heritage, it brought back memories of Perks' amazing final three holes that victorious Sunday at Sawgrass. If there were signature moments in his 2-stroke victory over Stephen Ames, they were his chip-ins on the 70th and 72nd holes, wrapped around a birdie at 17. The eagle-birdie-miracle par finish is ingrained in Players lore.
"It seems like so much longer than five years," he said. "I replay all those shots in my mind over and over and over again, the experiences I've had since then have been incredible."
Perks was No. 256 in the world at the time, climbing to 64th on the World Ranking with the win. He now has no ranking points and only has an official rank (1,224) because he has played PGA Tour events the past two years. He keeps his spot in the Champions Locker Room at the new TPC Sawgrass clubhouse, but his five-year exemption runs out this year. It may be a blessing.
Lost in small type is that Perks had a chance to repeat as a Players champion, but 2003 was his last time in contention.
"To be honest, I didn't really know what I was accomplishing, the magnitude of the tournament, until I went back the following year," Perks said. "I was in the final group Saturday, 2 shots out of the lead, and Davis [Love III] shot 64. At that point, I felt the magnitude."
The trouble began for Perks when he made attempts to improve his ball-striking by jumping from instructors -- trying both Butch Harmon and Stephen Aumock, a Hank Haney disciple -- and power lifting. Gone was his flexibility and eventually his confidence.
"I lost the art of playing golf, of scoring," Perks said. "I made so many radical changes, I'd stand over a shot, and have 10 different things to think about to take the club away. The information was good if I'd done it in small parts. I wanted it all right then."
Accuracy off the tee has always been Perks' problem. He only hit two fairways in the final round at Sawgrass in '02 until splitting the 16th fairway with "the greatest drive of my life." His driving-accuracy percentage has hovered around 54 percent from 2003-06.
"I was standing up over the ball, not focused on what type of shot I was going to hit. I'd hit six to the right, four to the left and wonder, 'Where the hell is this one going?'" he said.
At Wachovia he only hit 10 of 28 fairways, which is slightly lower than his driving accuracy percentage of 39 percent in 2007.
As crooked as the ball is going, Perks still has his head on straight.
"I never thought a young kid from New Zealand could come over here and compete against the best players in the world and win against the strongest fields, so it has been very gratifying," Perks said. "I'm proud of what I've done, what I've accomplished, and I've worked hard, extremely hard. You just keep busting your butt and hopefully something good will happen."
Tim Rosaforte is a senior writer for Golf World magazine.