Five years later, Perks long way from top

Associated Press • May 8, 2007 at 9:18 AM

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. - His image hangs from a banner on the road into The Players Championship, a courtesy extended only to winners. He will always have a locker in the corner room set aside for champions in the sprawling clubhouse at TPC Sawgrass, right between Tiger Woods and Adam Scott.

More reassuring for Craig Perks than any of those status symbols is a DVD he keeps at home.

"I look at it when I get down to say, ‘Hey, I did that. I'm The Players champion. I won,'" Perks said.

It was five years ago, his only PGA Tour victory, a finish that arguably remains the greatest in the 33-year history of this event.

Trailing by one shot, Perks chipped in for eagle from 20 feet on the 16th hole. Then came the scary island green on the par-3 17th, where Perks holed a 30-foot birdie putt. And right when it looked as though he was on the cusp of a choke, he chipped in for par on the final hole from 30 feet behind the green.

"You're unbelievable," Woods told him that afternoon at the trophy presentation.

Unbelievable takes on a new meaning now.

Since that 2002 victory at Sawgrass, the 40-year-old New Zealander has played 125 times on the PGA Tour and made 39 cuts, with only two of those finishes in the top 10. The last one was a tie for fourth at the Colonial four years ago.

He has played five times this year and has yet to break par, much less cash a check. Perks is coming off a season in which he finished 254th out of 263 who earned official money on the PGA Tour. His lone payoff came at New Orleans, where he finished last.

He plugged in the DVD at the start of the season to give himself a boost.

Didn't work.

"I take a positive away from it, knowing I can do it," Perks said. "I know I can play well. I can compete with the best in the world. I just haven't done it."

Time is running out.

This is the last year of his five-year exemption on the PGA Tour and to The Players Championship. He will always have status as a past champion, and likely can get sponsor exemptions as one of the nicest, classiest people around.

Perks has heard endless references to being a "one-hit wonder," and he might end up being the poster boy.

Shaun Micheel has not won since his PGA Championship in 2003, but he was runner-up at the PGA last year and reached the final of the World Match Play Championship last year in England. Paul Lawrie won the British Open at Carnoustie, then captured the Dunhill Links a few years later at St. Andrews. Ben Curtis won twice last year.

"I'm proud to be out here playing, and to have won the event I won," Perks said. "A lot of great players have never won at all. I'm not pushing to get that second victory, I'm pushing to get my game back in shape."

There are few signs he is about to turn the corner.

It didn't help that he was in the same group as Woods the first two rounds at the Wachovia Championship last week, where his game was on display for some 5,000 people. Perks opened with an 80, and only a stellar short game kept his 76 in the second round from being worse.

"I was more embarrassed hitting those shots in front of Tiger than all the people," Perks said. "You become more focused. I was more focused than I've been in a month. It's a privilege to play with the best player in the world. I'm watching him to see what he does and trying to learn something from him."

They were together again Tuesday for a practice round at The Players. Woods didn't want to wait behind a few groups on No. 1, so he jumped ahead to the third hole, where he and Bubba Watson hooked up with a former Players champion. "He's such a great guy," Woods said. "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." Perks' biggest problem has been driving, and some observers have said he has the yips with the driver. He has hit so many wayward tee shots that he no longer knows where the next one is going. So it had to be a little unsettling on the 14th hole at Sawgrass when Watson, who swings for the fence on every hole, unleashed a tee shot that took off like a rocket and gently faded toward the middle of the fairway, beyond the shelf where even long balls land. Woods looked over at Perks. "You want to go next?" Woods said to him. The Kiwi smiled, waited his turn, then guided a tee shot some 40 yards behind Woods and twice that distance behind Watson. Perks said he struggled with the sudden fame that came with winning The Players, especially in that fashion. That's not unusual for any first-time winner. He had to cope with demands on his time, and he tried to become a player worthy of winning such an elite tournament. That's not unusual, either. "I looked at the negative side of where I finished in 2002 - ball-striking - instead of the positive side, which was the money list," said Perks, who was 34th on the money list that year. "I made radical changes to be more consistent. I liked what I saw, I just couldn't get results out of it. I came back to knowing what I can do, instead of listening what I should do. And I lost confidence." Perks has gone through three swing coaches in the past five years. Now he's on his own, trying to learn from videotape taken from the range and videotape of 2002 at Sawgrass.

"It's just not coming out right now," he said of his game.

His banner will always be on Champions Way. His nameplate will in the champions locker room.

The goal after this week will be to see it himself.

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