Tour and News

Tough Talker

Photo: Fred Vuich/SI

Last year, Pernice made $2.4 million and finished 25th on the money list.

Tom Pernice doesn't care what you think. It's not a normal quality in a person, and it's a particularly uncommon trait on the PGA Tour, where most of the players are dutiful — meaning they are polite and say the expected thing.

Pernice, who's playing the best golf of his long career, says whatever he's thinking, just like his political mentor, Rush Limbaugh, who has become a friend. Pernice, a former member of the Tour's policy board, regularly criticizes Tim Finchem, the PGA Tour commissioner, for being "afraid of conflict" and for "surrounding himself with people who aren't willing to challenge him, which I consider a sign of weakness."

He believes that some of the architects the Tour has hired for its TPC courses (he names Tom Fazio and Ed Seay) have built "bad courses because not one of them can play worth a lick, can't even break 85."

Phil Mickelson once gave Pernice's older daughter a lift from California to New York on his private plane, and Pernice has asked Tiger Woods to sign things for him for charity events, but that didn't stop Pernice from criticizing both of them for skipping last year's Tour Championship.

Pernice believes Tour bylaws should require members to play more events, and certain events. But Finchem, Pernice says, would never support such a change because he doesn't want to get into conflict with the Tour's top players.

You say to Pernice, "Making guys play, that doesn't sound like something Rush would support. It doesn't sound very free market." He has an answer for you. Pernice always has an answer for you.

"You can't have a government without any laws," he says.

He could be on talk radio.

The mainstream media, with their supposed liberal bias: Don't even get him started on that. Ordinary Americans have no idea what's really going on in Iraq "because every day the media (are) reporting the number of people who die" instead of the progress being made.

Even the golf press, never mistaken for a bunch of wildeyed radicals, misrepresents the truth as Pernice sees it. At the Tour Championship, when he ripped Mickelson and Woods, one important part was omitted from his quotes, he says — the part in which he acknowledged a player's right, under current rules, to play where he likes.

In 2005 Pernice asked Tour officials to test a driver being used by Woods, to see if it conformed to the Rules of Golf. (It did.) Pernice says he was prompted to ask for the test on a dare by friends, none of them Tour players, but the press made the episode sound as if Pernice were doing the dirty work for his buddy and Woods's rival, Vijay Singh.

As a golfer Pernice is a less accomplished version of Fred Funk, but without the Funkster's playful demeanor. Pernice hits it short. You can see his fitness through his snug, carefully chosen mock turtlenecks, and he's a fierce competitor. He often plays practice rounds with two of the longest hitters in the game: Singh, with whom he shares a trainer, and John Daly, with whom he shares a taste for wine, women and song.

Actually, he doesn't. Pernice presents himself completely differently from Long John. He's been wearing a wwjd (What Would Jesus Do) bracelet since the 1999 death of Payne Stewart, with whom Pernice played junior golf in Missouri in the 1970s.

Certain issues at the intersection of faith and politics are no-brainers to him: He opposes gay marriage and all abortion procedures, and he favors school prayer. He sometime attends the Tour's weekly Bible-study meetings, and it would be easy to mistake him for one of the Tour's born-again Christians, a group that includes Zach Johnson, Bernhard Langer and Tom Lehman.

But he's not.

Pernice is a devout Catholic and has been all his life. His surname is Italian — once pronounced per-NEE-chee — and his father, a grandfather and three uncles were barbers, with a shop on Independence Avenue in Kansas City, Mo., in the heart of the city's Northeast district, once an Italian stronghold.

Pernice's father, also Tom, was divorced from Tom's mother, Nancy, when he died, at age 49, after choking on a piece of food. The senior Tom Pernice, a father of three boys, was once close to scratch, and he introduced his oldest son to the game.

One of Tom's sorrows is that his father never saw him compete on Tour. But you'll never hear him get weepy on the subject. He's not built that way.

Pernice married a Kansas City girl, Sydney Wade, in 1989, and they had two daughters, one of whom is blind. In 2000 Sydney and Tom divorced. They both moved on. Sydney married a doctor. Pernice had a girlfriend. Then, after a brief marriage, Sydney divorced the doctor, and in 2003 she and Pernice remarried.

It's not the tidy, linear progression of married life so familiar to readers of the obit page in The Kansas City Star, and of course the various life curves were noted by certain students — some wives, some players, some caddies, some officials, some reporters — of the Tour fishbowl. Do you think Pernice was disturbed? Uh, no.

"I don't care what anyone thinks," he says.

Sydney says something similar: "They weren't leading my life. I had my hands full."

Pernice will sometimes say he has a responsibility to talk about this or that as "one of the top players in the world." He'll go to the Players Championship next week 64th in the World Ranking. But the Thursday draw sheet will mark only the eighth time he has qualified for the Players in a professional career that began in 1983, and he has made the cut but three times.

Last year, when he was the best quote at the Tour Championship, at which he tied for fifth, it was his first time in the tournament. In 455 Tour starts Pernice has won twice, in 1999 at the Buick event in Grand Blanc, Mich., and at the International in 2001. Both wins came when he and Sydney were not together, so he never had that wife-and-hubby-kiss-on-18 moment. But Pernice will tell you that his victory at the International (an event that was killed this year; a new event hosted by Tiger Woods in Washington, D.C., will replace it) was the most memorable moment of his career.

Not because of what he did on the course, but because of what happened afterward. His two daughters came running out: Kristen, who was seven at the time, and Brooke, the blind daughter, who was six. Brooke ran her fingers over her father's face, felt his smile and finally had confirmation that he had won. She immediately made the sign of the cross on his face. She is as devout as her father and mother, who was born a Methodist but converted to Catholicism.

(Says Brooke, "It doesn't matter what kind of Christian you are, as long as you're Christian.")

Her outlook may possibly be more conservative than her father's. While at the Masters this year she discussed with a reporter an issue that riles father and 12-year-old daughter: illegal immigration.

The Pernices live in Southern California, where this topic is particularly touchy. Their home is on the far outskirts of San Diego, where there are still horse ranches amid the sun-drenched golf communities. The family moved to California from Kansas City in 1997 because Pernice had heard from Engelbert Humperdinck about an acupuncturist who had worked miracles with the singer's mother.

But California is a big state, and the Pernice house was about a two hour ride from the office, and father and daughter made the drive several times a week, listening to Rush much of the way. The radio pundit's message sunk in.

"Now if they come here legal, with all their paperwork in order, that's fine. I have no problem with that," Brooke said, sitting on a bench outside the Augusta National pro shop. "But if they come here illegal and use our schools and hospitals and roads, that's wrong and they should be sent right back."

You're not going to trip up the Pernices on this issue. Tom Pernice is "100 percent certain" that all his ancestors came to this country with proper documentation, including his paternal grandmother, who came to Texas from Mexico. That's where Pernice gets his dark hair and skin, from the Garcia branch.

Anyway, as well as Brooke Pernice talks — at age seven a test showed that she had the expressive skills of a 15-year-old — her singing is even better.

Both parents are convinced they're raising a star. At the least, she's a bright and talented girl who describes her genre as country-Christian, and at the Masters her mother was carrying a few copies of a three-song CD Brooke recorded.

One of the songs is titled "Standing on My Own," with lyrics written by Sydney and reworked by Brooke and her voice teacher, David Reuther. The song is a tribute to Brooke's older sister, who's a competitive cheerleader and an occasional actress.

A sample from the chorus provides a sense of the larger whole:
She is my rock
She is my friend
She is my hero
Till this world ends

"I woke up one night, and the lyrics were coming straight down the corridor and right at me," Sydney explains.

That is to say, they were from God.

Sydney says that dealing with Brooke's blindness brought strain to the marriage in multiple ways. Brooke was born in March 1995, "and at first they were telling us that half her brain was missing, that there was a hole in her heart, that she'll probably never be able to do anything," Sydney says. "Those first few years, Tom was trying to provide for her beyond his grade, paying for all these specialists and things."

The acupuncturist in California didn't give Brooke sight, but he helped in other ways, and the move did wonders for Pernice's game. He spent more time in the gym, more time on the driving range, more time with swing coaches and psychologists.

In 1998 he finished 55th on the money list, earning $520,400, triple what he had made in any other year. Like his personal life, his career is not exactly linear: Only at 39, after years of playing in Europe and Asia, on minor U.S. tours and on and off the PGA Tour, was he fully exempt for the first time. Playing about 32 events a year, he has kept his card since. Last year he made $2.4 million and finished 25th on the money list.

Pernice studied economics at UCLA, where he played with four other future Tour players: Jay Delsing, Steve Pate, Corey Pavin and Duffy Waldorf. He is actually narrowing the gap significantly on Pavin for career earnings — $13.5 million versus $11.1 million — which is amazing, because Pavin was one of the best players in the 1980s and '90s, until Tiger arrived and purses exploded.

It's impressive what Pernice has achieved as a journeyman touring pro and as a father. Still, it's easy to confuse some of his comments for arrogance.

He said the other day, "Tiger needs to understand the Tour's situation." He means that Tiger doesn't spread the wealth enough, that there are too many tournaments that don't have a prayer of attracting him, which hurts the Tour as a whole.

That may be true, but does Tiger need to understand the Tour's situation? His thing is to chase Jack Nicklaus's record for majors. It's as if Pernice can't help himself.

After the Tour Championship last year, Mickelson called Pernice and left a long message on his cellphone that said, among other things, "I don't appreciate you giving me advice."

It hasn't stopped him. The Tour fined Pernice earlier this year for his pointed criticism regarding the changes to Torrey Pines, a penalty "which I think is a crock," he says. And then he goes off again, explaining how the renovations done by Rees Jones have stripped the course of its "traditional look."

Pernice used to consider Torrey Pines South a 7.5 on a scale of 1 to 10; now, stretched out to 7,568 yards, Torrey rates a 4.

"But Tiger likes it," he says.

Pernice is nothing — nothing — if not confident. He was posed a hypothetical question: You're going to play Tiger for 100 straight days, $1 million a day, winner take all, medal play, no ties, Tour courses.

How many are you going to win, and how many will Tiger win?

"Depends on where we play it," Pernice quickly answered. "At Torrey Pines or Bay Hill or some of the other long ones, he's going to have an advantage. But at Hilton Head and some of the position courses, I could win half. At least."

God bless the guy, at least he makes things interesting.

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