In July 2003, the world's best players are in Sandwich, England for the British Open at Royal St. George's. Pat Perez, the most tempestuous player on the PGA Tour, is sharing room 215 of the Econo Lodge in Endicott, New York, with his golf bag and a large pink Jacuzzi. Across the street is En-Joie Golf Club, home of the B.C. Open, the Tour's Island of Broken Toys. After a third-round 68, Perez's room is heavy with pent-up rage.
"Don't push me," an angry voice says. "Big mistake."
Suddenly the sounds of a battle fill the room — a wall-smashing blast of punches, grunts and broken glass.
"This takes my mind off of everything," says Perez, who is playing the Incredible Hulk video game on his PlayStation. "The only problem is, I get playing too long and can't sleep. I can't put it down. Every night I go to bed at about 1 o'clock." The everything Perez wants off his mind includes the fact that after a torrid rookie season in 2002, which featured six top 10s, $1.45 million in earnings and a runner-up finish in the Rookie of the Year race, he faltered horribly in 2003 and fell out of the top 100 on the money list.
The smoke from his cigarette mingles with incense that burns on top of the TV. Two packs of Marlboro Lights rest on the coffee table beside two Nike hats, a roll of SweetTarts and the $60,000 Rolex Perez picked up for $40,000 from his buddy John Daly. And the Hulk isn't the only one in the room with a short fuse.
"All this stuff — I've got to have it," Perez says of his game console and cartridges, notebook computer, duffel bag, and golf gear. "I get hit with an $80 charge every time I travel. The airlines are unbelievable — I can't pack only 50-pound bags. I'm on the road too long!"
Going to movies: "It's a lot of effort — get up, go, sit down. So I wait until they come out on DVD. It's 20 bucks, the same price either way. Going to the movies is ridiculous."
The old saw that golf is a game of misses: "That's f---ing stupid. It's not a game of misses. It's about hitting it in the damn hole, fast. That's what everybody out here does."
Anger management therapy: "The Tour suggested it, but I didn't go. I get mad and show it. The only way I won't get mad is if I win every tournament."
By the end of 2003, Perez not only hadn't won every PGA Tour event, he hadn't won any. He had made only 16 of 33 cuts. He had withdrawn from three tournaments and had almost lost his Tour card. He'd flirted with the wrong end of the top 125, dropping to 122 with only the Chrysler Championship in Palm Harbor, Florida, remaining on his schedule. He tied for 17th there to win $63,000 and keep his playing privileges for 2004.
This year began with more of the same. Perez showed signs of ending his slump (71-68 to start the Nissan Open), then posted scores unworthy of his talent (75-75 on the weekend). He missed seven cuts in his first 10 starts this year and then, in May, fired a closing 66 to finish 20th at the HP.Classic of New Orleans and earn $57,324. Still, with just $113,324 in 13 events, he was 149th on the money list.
At 28, Perez seems trapped in an ugly cycle: He's pissed off because he doesn't win, and he doesn't win because he's pissed off. At least that's the theory on Tour. Perez's on-course temperament is more suited to pro wrestling than to golf, but he is too ridiculously gifted to ignore. He is Chad Campbell with an attitude. Or maybe Tommy Bolt with a PlayStation.
Some of his fire is fed by resentment. Moments after his triumph at the 2001 Qualifying School, where medalist Perez won $50,000 and his Tour card, he was miffed by all the attention lavished that day on teen sensation Ty Tryon. He was also annoyed at Southern California club pros who hadn't let him play their tracks for free. " 'Come back when you get your card,' they told me," he says, puffing a cigarette. "But now I'll never play their courses."
Months later, paired with Tryon at a Tour event, Perez griped that fans only cheered for young Ty. "I'd make a birdie," he said, "and you could hear the wind blow."
Perez smokes, drinks and until this year yawned at the thought of working out. He started weightlifting but developed tendonitis in his left elbow and stopped. He doesn't spend much time on the range. "I used to practice a lot," he says. "But I got worse. It's overrated."
And then there's that temper.
The public first saw perez hulk out at the 2002 AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. In just his fourth Tour start, he held a four-shot lead through 54 holes. On Sunday, Perez kept it together for 13 holes and still led by one until he knocked a 3-wood out of bounds at the par-5 14th. Perez took a penalty stroke, tried again — this time missing left — and tomahawked the offending spoon into the turf. Before you could say, "Holy public image!" he'd made double-bogey and blown the lead.
Undeterred, he made a pair of birdies and stepped up to the tee of Pebble's storied par-5 18th tee leading Matt Gogel by one. With the tournament in the balance, Perez shoved his drive out of bounds by 18 inches. After confirming that the ball was indeed O.B., he stomped back to the tee and played his third shot onto the fairway. Now needing a miracle shot to win, Perez gave it a try, but his ball splashed into Monterey Bay. He went Vesuvius, trying to snap his 3-wood over his knee.
Pat Perez Live at Pebble Beach was great reality TV. Four months later, he had another chance to win at the Buick Classic but three-putted from seven feet on the 71st hole. His nationally televised torrent of cussing so embarrassed Pat's father, Tony, that he asked his son to gag the inner Hulk. Pat said he'd try.
While bluenoses blanched at his tirades, some fans loved Perez. Not since tennis superbrat John McEnroe had a country-club sport seen someone display such potential genius (Perez went 10 under par through his first 11 holes during a second-round 61 at the 2003 Bob Hope Chrysler Classic) combined with a propensity to smash equipment. Perez was shocking — to some, refreshing. Until he started making bogeys in bunches.
"just trying to find it," he says while tinkering with a belly putter on the practice green during the 2004 Buick Invitational in February. Perez is at home here at Torrey Pines, where his dad taught him the game. It was here that the teenage Perez had a job cleaning carts. It was here that he beat Tiger Woods and every other tiny terror of the era to win the 1993 Junior World title. Only half joking, Perez now calls that victory the highlight of his career.
Perez spots Woods out of the corner of his eye.
"Want to try this one?" Perez says, handing over his funky belly putter. "This is when you know you've got problems."
"I could have told you that," Woods says, taking the long wand and making a few practice strokes.
In the next day's opening round, Perez has a good thing going until he three-putts the last hole, adding a sour aftertaste to an otherwise solid 69. But on Friday he balloons to 76 and misses his fourth cut in five tries. On the plus side, his buddy John Daly wins the tournament, sparking a renaissance in Daly's own loony career.
HEIGHT 6' 0"
FAMILY Brother Mike Perez plays on the Nationwide Tour. Father Tony is director of development for the First Tee of Southern Nevada
COLLEGE Led Arizona State University to the NCAA title in 1996 but clashed with coach Randy Lein and left after three years
PROFESSIONAL WINS 2000 Buy.com Ozarks Open; 2001 PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament
TOYS A black 2002 Mercedes S500 with a $25,000 stereo in the back ("They took the whole trunk out -- it's like a nightclub in there"), a black 2002 Toyota Land Cruiser and two dune buggies. "I've got remote-controlled cars too. Two work, one crashed. It's shattered. I don't have enough patience to fix those things."
WORDS TO LIVE BY "Black is the only way to go on cars. Unless I get a Ferrari, in which case I'd go with the traditional red."
GOAL "To be on MTV Cribs"
Perez was just 16 when Daly invited him to step out of the gallery and hit a ball during the 1993 Buick pro-am at Torrey Pines. "He came out kind of shy," Daly says, "and hit the s--t out of it." Two of the fastest, streakiest players on Tour, Daly and Perez have grown close. They have each other's numbers on speed-dial on their cell phones, and Daly sometimes has his young protege over to his megatrailer for dinner. "He's hungry, that's what I love about him," Daly says. "He hates to lose, like me." By day the two live wires crack wise on the practice green; after dark they crack beers or near-beers at whatever sports-pub parking lot is home to Daly's million-dollar mobile home that week.
"Pat's problem is that he acts like Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday are tournament days," Daly says. "He gets mad in practice rounds. He's using up good energy. I say, 'Pat, can we just enjoy this round?' "
Like Daly, Perez is impatient. At the 2002 John Deere Classic, paired with Fred Funk and Peter Jacobsen, he pulled a wedge way left of the flag on the very first hole of the tournament. "It was a bad shot — I mean, anybody would have been upset," says Mark Long, Funk's caddie. "But it was the first hole of the tournament. Then he hits his first putt, just blasts it eight feet past the hole. Then he walks up and quick-hits the eight-footer, like he's going to miss the cut by a mile, and misses it, and Jake looks at me like, 'Who is this guy?' It was like he'd committed himself to making bogey after that wedge shot — to punish himself." Perez went on to finish fourth, and that week he made $144,000.
Like McEnroe, he polarizes other players. "He's great to play with," Funk says. "I don't mind if a guy goes ballistic out there. And jeez Louise, he's got some game."
"It'd be easy for me to act like an a--hole too, but I don't," says one Tour veteran, who asks that his name be withheld. "I don't want to damage what's been built out here. I'm not saying he's done that, but he's definitely toeing that line. I mean, we could all act like that, but do we? My wife wouldn't let me. Maybe he needs a wife."
"I'd be surprised if he doesn't win a lot of tournaments," says Joey Sindelar, who like many Tour players views Perez with the caution and respect of a camper eyeing a sleeping bear. "Physically, he's in the top 25 percent out here."
The stats say the cause of Perez's decline is more short game than short fuse: After finishing sixth in putts per round as a rookie he was 62nd last year and was languishing at 177th at press time. By late April he'd abandoned the belly, going back to the putter he used in his near-victory at Pebble Beach.
"My first year I could get it up and down from anywhere," he says. "It all comes back to confidence. If you're playing well you're not going to get in your own way. You're not searching for anything. Like that day at the Hope — I was just firing at pins and making putts."
Perez has given up his late-night sessions with the Hulk. He no longer takes his PlayStation on the road. That's part of a metamorphosis that also includes new irons, woods, balls and clothes, as well as being sort of committed to fitness (he gave up the weights but stuck with his cardio routine). "The thing that kills me is my diet," he says. "I love Mexican food."
Still young but aging double-time with every missed cut, Pat Perez needs to start hitting it in the damn hole, fast.