Verdi column: Perks finds the game's darkest place, then walks away

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Craig Perks' last season on the PGA TOUR was 2007, five years after his PLAYERS triumph.
May 10, 2012

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- He forgot how to play golf. Craig Perks won THE PLAYERS Championship in 2002, and then he forgot how to play golf. It didn't take 10 years for him to put away the clubs and try something else. It felt more like 10 minutes.

Award-winning sports writer Bob Verdi is on site this week at THE PLAYERS Championship and will file a daily column for PGATOUR.COM.

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"By 2007, I was basically toast," says Perks. "It was so bad, I played every practice round by myself. I was that embarrassed. Played 15 events that year, missed every cut, and that was it. My game was in shambles. On Tuesdays, I could get along OK. Then on Wednesdays, I could feel apprehension building. By Thursday, for the first round, I couldn't get myself to the tee. I was shot, done, over."

Ten years ago, Perks was the leading man in an instant classic. He chipped in on the 16th hole Sunday for eagle, birdied No. 17, then chipped in on No. 18 to secure par and beat by two strokes what is annually the sport's toughest field. It was the first PGA TOUR conquest for this amiable man of 35 from New Zealand, and surely there were more acceptance speeches in his future, perhaps even a major.

What ensued instead was a shocking free fall that culminated with a sickening thud during his aforementioned final season. Perks not only failed to make a cut in 2007, he never broke 70 in any round and four times, could not break 80. Perks' aggregate was 134 over par, not exactly fruitful results from five-year plan following his moment in the sun at the Stadium course. But did he have a plan? How could this happen? Nice guys can finish last, but why did such a nice guy finish so soon, in such a colossal funk?

"A lot of it was confidence, or lack of it," admits Perks. "Even after I won here, I didn't have a great deal of confidence. I never quite felt my name belonged on the trophy, and as it turned out, I would up being a one-hit wonder. I had decent skills, and they were on an ascending path when I won here. I felt I worked as hard as anybody else, too. But mentally, I was a 36 handicap."

Self-deprecation did not metastasize into self-destruction because Perks had a close family and enough perspective to realize that a stick and ball should not define his existence. He still loves the game that didn't always love him, but now only as Golf Channel's lead analyst of the Nationwide Tour. At this year's PLAYERS, he is performing a number of broadcast duties, and when he goes for make-up, they don't have to paint a smile on his face.

"What happened to my golf game is all on me," Perks says. "I thought I would be a better person and husband and father by playing better golf, which in fact couldn't have been further from the truth when it came to how I treated people, including those who meant the most to me. So, shortly after I won here, I changed my equipment, my caddie, my swing. I changed everything except, thank goodness, my wife Maureen.

"The equipment change meant a four-year guaranteed contract, so, yes, it had something to do with money. Or at least, longevity. But by playing the same ball I'd always played, I didn't feel it was that significant. The worst mistake I made was trying to change my swing. Not just parts of it. All of it. I became so screwed up that I wasn't playing golf anymore. I was standing over the ball and thinking mechanics, what I was supposed to do. I was playing golf swing instead of golf."

Craig Perks relives 2002 dramatic finish

John Swantek walks with 2002 PLAYERS Championship winner Craig Perks through the final three holes at TPC Sawgrass, as he describes his emotions during his incredible finish.

When Perks sought a solution from Butch Harmon, one in a series of would-be helpers, it was already getting late. At his base in Las Vegas, the legendary Harmon studied a dossier of Perks' statistics, examined photos, looked up and said, "You suck at everything." Vintage bluntness by Butch, but true.

"I thought I had my epiphany in 2004," Perks says. "On the 18th fairway at Augusta, I needed only to make bogey to make the cut. Hooked a five-iron and made six. Went to our rented house and just sat in a corner, devastated. I looked up, and there was my daughter, Meghan, crying and Maureen in tears. Our son, Nigel, was too young to be brought down by my negative energy. I should have learned that night. But I kept going, and what's the definition of insanity? Doing the same thing that doesn't work over and over again? One of the shrinks I saw -- there were a few of those, too -- suggested anti-depressants. But here's the thing. Only golf got me down."

And then Craig Perks got out, his mind and marriage intact. Other golfers have dug deep into golf's black hole, yet revived. Steve Stricker, for one.

"Yes," Perks says, "but Steve is a better player than I am, first of all. He also had more positives to draw upon when he struggled, more history of success than I did. I wasn't ready for what happened after I won here, the demands and expectations. And I certainly wasn't ready to deal with my demise. I wouldn't wish what happened to me on anyone, but if I had a message to the guys out there now, it would be....enjoy what you accomplish because you never know. Learn how to say no without being arrogant, don't change what doesn't need to be changed, and surround yourself with a good support staff. If not for Maureen, I wouldn't have made it through this."

Last autumn, Craig Perks shot 65 at his home course, Le Triomphe in Louisiana.

"My only thought now is to have no thoughts," he says. "I can play recreationally with my buddies and a few beers without dreading having to hit a tee ball. No more yips with the driver anymore. But that's why I can enjoy golf again. Because it doesn't matter."

Bob Verdi is a freelance columnist for PGATOUR.COM His views do not necessarily represent the views of the PGA TOUR.