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Original Issue

Pitched Battle

Thanks to a couple of amazing hole-outs when he needed them most, little-known Craig Perks fought off a star-studded field at the Players Championship

A New Zealander who is married to an Irish-Catholic Cajun and lives in her hometown of Lafayette, La., held on for a victory, his first on Tour, over a Trinidadian who is married to a Canadian, lives in her hometown of Calgary and has never won on Tour. When the strongest field of the year assembles on the Tour's toughest course, this isn't the expected result, but that's what happened at a highly unusual Players Championship--Craig Perks, the transplanted New Zealander, beat Stephen Ames, the wannabe Canadian, at the brutal TPC at Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.

It was clear something was up right from the start when the first threesome of the first round reached the infamous island-green 17th hole. Brandel Chamblee, first up, hit what appeared to be a perfect tee shot, but the wind, swirling angrily in the wake of a heavy rainstorm that had blitzed the course a few hours earlier, swatted his ball down into the water like King Kong backhanding a Sopwith Camel away from the Empire State Building. The other two players in Chamblee's group, Skip Kendall and Kaname Yokoo, suffered similar fates. "I still had the honors in the drop zone," said Chamblee, who hit the green with his second ball but watched it spin back into the water. His third try stayed on the green, and he two-putted for a 7. "That's the first time I've ever had to repair two ball marks on a green," he said. "That was a carnival."

Carnival, that's the word everyone was looking for to describe what happened at the Players. Until the very end, when the 35-year-old Perks saved the circus with an array of astounding acts, the tournament felt more like a series of bad sideshows than the so-called fifth major. Perks, who hadn't won anything bigger than a Hooters tour event in 12 years as a pro, pitched in for eagle at the 16th hole to move ahead of Ames, who had finished nearly two hours earlier, at six under. At 17 Perks jarred a stunning 25-foot birdie putt to go two up, and then at 18 he pitched in again (page G26) for an amazing par just when he was on the verge of a Jean Van de Velde-like meltdown.

The then 203rd-ranked Perks, who was making his first appearance at the Players, needed only to bogey 18 to win, but instead of playing it safe off the tee on the 447-yard par-4, he inexplicably chose driver and lost the shot right, into the trees. After first deciding to bounce a heroic recovery down a cartpath below some branches, Perks regained his senses and chipped sideways onto the fairway. He then put himself in more jeopardy by sailing his eight-iron third shot over the green into thick rough. That made even Perks's wife, Maureen, nervous. "I was standing next to [Tour commissioner] Tim Finchem behind the green," she said, "and I told him, 'This is no gimme.'"

When the pitch rolled true, Perks picked up some big perks: A check for $1.08 million (previous career winnings: $1.02 million); a five-year exemption; free passes into the "four other majors," as the Tour puts it; and a trip to Maui, Hawaii, for next year's Mercedes Championships. Winning the Players may not be as good as winning a major, but it's a career-maker. "It's going to be sensational to play in all the majors and know that I have five years out here," said Perks. "I've worked so hard to get here."

Before Perks's finish, there were the freak shows, and everyone knew that Colin Montgomerie, back on the left side of the Atlantic after swearing off the U.S. as a bad habit, would witness a few in his gallery. Inspired by a batch of encouraging e-mails, Montgomerie was greeted warmly by the fans--at first. "Very positive, indeed," he said after opening with a two-under 70. "So far, I'm glad I came." What were the fans saying to him? "Things like, 'I'm glad to see you're here' and 'Good luck' and 'I'm Scotch.' That's a whisky, but never mind."

The goodwill wore off by the weekend. Last Saturday one elderly man loudly reminded Montgomerie that Monty had never won a major, called him a loser and told him to go back to Scotland. Security officers confronted the fan but didn't remove him from the grounds. Later in the round another fan called Montgomerie Mrs. Doubtfire. He didn't respond to either taunt, and when asked about the incidents, he said, "Golf-related questions only, please." Monty wound up 63rd, 16 shots behind Perks, but said he planned to play in this week's Shell Houston Open as preparation for the Masters.

Nothing was freakier than Phil Mickelson's performance. He shot an eight-under 64 in the opening round, a departure in an event in which his scores include a closing 77 last year, an 83 in 2000 and a final-round 82 in 1999. Mickelson, whose aggressive style is ill-suited to the penal Stadium course at Sawgrass, didn't go higher than 76 last week, finishing 28th. He also won over some of his critics by vowing never to change the way he plays. "The fact is, I play my best when I attack, when I create shots," he said. "I wouldn't have had as many chances to win majors if I had played any other way. I won't ever change, not at Augusta, not at the U.S. Open, not at any tournament. I've won more than anyone playing right now other than Tiger Woods, and I haven't seen anybody step up and challenge Tiger the way I have."

Mickelson's backers ask this question: Arnold Palmer was revered for going for broke. Why isn't Lefty? Regardless of how heartfelt his declaration might have been, the timing of it was terrible. Mickelson vented on Friday evening, when he was only a shot behind the midway leader, Carl Paulson. Less than a day later he had everyone befuddled all over again when he somehow five-putted the 10th hole from 18 feet--he pulled three straight short ones--to make a quadruple-bogey 8 and shoot himself out of the tournament with a 75. "I don't know what to say," Mickelson said. "I tried to laugh it off and play hard the last eight holes." The disaster was a vivid reminder that in addition to making some questionable course-management decisions, Mickelson is also a flawed short putter, which is probably the primary reason that he has yet to win a major.

On Sunday the greens turned brown--almost bare--and dangerously fast. "They were 10 times faster than during the first three rounds," according to Brad Faxon, and Perks's spectacular hole-outs were among the few highlights. A slew of players could've-should've won. Paulson, still leading after three rounds, blew up with five bogeys on the front nine en route to a 77. Rocco Mediate, who lives in a house adjacent to the 2nd hole, got to within a shot of the lead when he eagled 16 but was fortunate to make par after a wild drive on 18 and tied for fourth. Sergio Garcia played wonderfully but couldn't buy a putt and also tied for fourth. Billy Andrade crept to six under, only to see his chances sink with his errant tee shot at 17. Ames, flying under the radar 11 groups ahead of the leaders, was one of the few players to move forward, shooting the second-lowest round of the day, a 67, to surge all the way from 21st to first. Even Perks made a couple of gaffes, missing two-footers at the 12th and 15th holes while shooting a 72.

That aside, Perks, at 6'2" and 200 pounds, looks like a big-time player. "I watched him warming up," said Jeff Sluman, who joined Andrade, Garcia, Mediate, Paulson and Scott Hoch in fourth, "and he looked like Ernie Els swinging the club." When he was 10, Perks was introduced to the game by his father, Bob, who had two artificial hips. At a nine-hole course in Palmerston North, New Zealand, a city of 72,500 that's 225 miles south of Auckland, Craig teed up his father's ball and picked it out of the cup for him. Soon he was playing too and within a few years was one of New Zealand's top juniors. He followed a friend, Grant Waite, to Oklahoma in 1985 but in '88 transferred to Southwestern Louisiana, where he met Maureen, a fellow student. He was a third-team All-America in his senior year, 1990, and turned pro after graduating with a degree in behavioral science. Since then, he and Maureen have had two children--Meghan, 5, and Nigel, 3--while he has struggled to gain a foothold on Tour.

"Craig has a great swing, his short game was always very good, but I think he lacked confidence," says Waite, who missed the cut at the Players and on Sunday returned home from a practice session in Orlando just in time to tune in and see Perks lining up his putt on 17. Waite sweated out the wild ride on 18, jumping out of his chair when Perks holed out for the win. "I almost couldn't watch," says Waite. "I'm two years older than Craig, so I've always been a bit ahead, but he's way ahead of me now. This is huge. This is the biggest thing in New Zealand since Bob Charles won the [1963] British Open."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DARREN CARROLL Hole story In the end it came down to this: Perks needed to get up and down from a tricky lie at 18 for the win. Instead, he rammed his pitch into the cup.

COLOR PHOTO: SIMON BRUTY Close, but... Ames (left) looked like a winner, Andrade made a run, and hometown favorite Mediate (bottom) closed fast but too late.


COLOR PHOTO: SIMON BRUTY FRUSTRATED Woods, the defending champ, shot four rounds in the 70s for the first time in three years and was never really in the mix.

"That's the first time I've ever had to repair two ball marks on the green," said Chamblee after his triple-bogey 7 on the 17th hole.

"I don't know what to say," Mickelson said on Saturday after five-putting the 10th hole. "I tried to laugh it off."