In Pat Perez’s first dozen years on the PGA TOUR he had no understanding of why he hit the shots he hit -- a shocking admission for a guy who once dusted Tiger Woods by eight shots at Junior Worlds and who has gone on to have some of the best ball-striking skills in the game.
But in golf bad shots are going to happen, and when they began to pile up for Perez, his blood would boil and internal thermometer spike, which would sometimes lead to a club being spiked, too. The mercury nearly burst last year in Las Vegas, where Perez missed the cut by eight.
“When I left Las Vegas, I really didn’t know whether I could even play anymore,” Perez said. “I didn’t have a clue what I was doing.”
Worse yet he didn’t know how to fix it. Not exactly a comfortable feeling when hitting golf balls is your job.
“It was so frustrating to hit bad shots and not understand why you hit them,” Perez said. “If you don’t know why it’s insanity, doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Not knowing how to fix it would drive me nuts, and that’s (part of) why I’d get so pissed.”
Then Perez met Joe Mayo, a self-proclaimed TrackMan maestro who teamed with Grant Waite three years ago to help teach players the physics of ball flight.
Mayo, who grew up playing baseball, basketball and volleyball, didn’t start paying golf until he was 18. Less than a decade later, however, he quit the game when he saw little improvement despite countless hours of lessons.
Then in 2007 after moving back to Tennessee when his father was diagnosed with cancer, Mayo was reading about an application of Doppler technology that had the capability to measure golf club movement in time and three-dimensional space. He always had an interest in physics and mathematics and the new product proved a perfect marriage to re-kindle his love for the game.
Mayo had met Waite through a mutual friend and eventually Perez late last year when their paths crossed at TPC Summerlin. Mayo was working with Jeff Quinney when Quinney asked Perez if he wouldn’t mind hitting some shots using TrackMan. Seeing Perez’s natural speed in his swing, Mayo told Perez that he could make him a better player.
“I’ve heard that speech a million times,” Perez recalls telling Mayo. “But I thought it couldn’t get any worse.”
He had just missed four straight cuts in his last five events, including the one in Las Vegas. What he quickly discovered through Mayo was that he was a whopping eight degrees out-to-in on his swing, which in layman's terms is a lot for a TOUR player and was causing an inconsistency that forced Perez to use his gifted hand-eye coordination to make up for such a big gap.
“(Joe) made a couple quick changes and in 10 minutes (Pat) was flushing it," said Perez's longtime caddie Mike Hartford. "It literally all happened that day.”
Added Mayo: “I’ve seen a remarkable change. Everybody has always known about his physical talent, but he also has the unique ability to adapt quickly.”
What has happened since is that Perez has not only gained an understanding of why his golf ball goes where it does but he has in turn been more consistent and on occasion put himself in contention.
Perez tied for eighth at Waialae in January and two weeks later finished runner-up at Torrey Pines. He has since added four more finishes in the top 20 and arrives in Charlotte -- where he held the 36-hole lead three years ago before finishing sixth -- having made 12 straight cuts, the longest streak of his career.
There have been some individual moments of greatness that have stood out, too.
Like when he shot a final-round 64 on a windswept morning at Harbour Town two weeks ago. Among his shots that day was a 4-iron approach into the teeth of it on the difficult finishing hole, where Perez made par and executed the type of swing he wouldn’t have been able to last season.
Perez’s putting has also dramatically improved and one could certainly theorize whatever improvements he has made with his full swing have taken at least some pressure off his short game.
“For first time ever he finally understands his golf swing,” Hartford said. “We can come up with a game plan whereas before it was sort of like we just went with what we had that day.
“Now he can hit pretty much any shot. This is the best I’ve ever seen him play.”
Other factors -- new equipment and a new fiancée, whom he’ll get married to later this year -- have played a role, too. But as the cliché goes, knowing is half the battle.
“It’s helped my mental approach because now I actually understand,” Perez said. “It’s got me in a nicer peace of mind. I know I’m close to winning.”
Which is a lot more than he has known the last dozen years.