Perez gets special congratulations after first win

January 27, 2009

LA QUINTA, Calif. (AP) — Pat Perez’s first PGA Tour victory was made even more special by winning with a certain silver-haired gentleman in the crowd at No. 18.

“I feel privileged to win the tournament that Mr. (Arnold) Palmer won 50 years ago, and now he’s back hosting it,” Perez said Sunday after he shot a 3-under 69 to win the Bob Hope Classic by three shots.

“I feel honored that he was there to shake my hand when I got done, and he’s such a legend that it’s just a great feeling on top of everything else.”

Perez, who had lost leads on windy days in the past, survived a gusty final 18 holes at the Hope to finish the five-day tournament at 33-under 327. He got help from Steve Stricker, who held a three-shot lead going into the final 18 holes only to balloon to a 77 in the finale.

John Merrick, beginning his third year on the tour, challenged down the stretch but finished three shots back with a 67 that left him in second place at 30 under.

Stricker’s round included two tee shots into the water and one out of bounds, leading to a triple bogey and a quadruple bogey. He still wound up tied for third at 28 under with Mike Weir, who shot 67. Stephen Ames had the low round on a rare day at the Hope when there weren’t many, with his 63 vaulting him into a fifth-place tie at 27 under with Bo Van Pelt (67), Web Simpson (69) and Tim Clark (69).

Conditions for the first four days were perfect, then the wind came up – and scores went up – for the final round on the Palmer Course at PGA West. Perez felt that worked in his favor.

“If the weather was perfect, someone could have shot 61 or 61,” he said. “So I actually didn’t mind the wind blowing all the way around. But it was definitely tough.”

The 32-year-old Perez, in the past considered a bit of a hothead when his game wasn’t going well, said he’s learned to remain calm and that was a plus during the final round.

“I just tried to stay pretty even-keeled,” he said. “I figured if I could just play solid and hit some good shots and kind of stay calm and think about what I’m doing out there, I was going to be fine.”

Explaining the change in attitude, he said, “I just got tired of getting upset all the time. It’s a lot of energy. I learned how the best guys do it.”

Mentioning Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh and Ernie Els, among others, Perez said, “All these guys are pretty even-keeled. They don’t let things bother them. They put stuff behind them. Before, if I made a double on five, the tournament was over. I look at that as a speed bump now.”

After hitting into the water and dropping to 29 under on the fifth hole, Perez steadied and still made the turn at an even 35.

Perez locked up the victory by knocking his approach shot over the water from 200 yards on No. 18 to 3 feet to set up an eagle. Merrick, winless on the tour, already had finished his round with a par on 18.

Perez didn’t consider playing it safe.

“I don’t lay up,” Perez said. “I hit a 6-iron. I mean, how hard is it? I’m not going to lay up with a wedge over here and hit a wedge over there. It’s a 6-iron. I was going to hit it.”

He beamed and doffed his cap after the ball rolled onto the green and the fans in the grandstands erupted in cheers. He stopped grinning only briefly, while he was bending over his final putt.

Merrick’s runner-up finish was the highest for the 26-year-old former UCLA star. His round included an extraordinarily lucky bounce on No. 16, when his shot from the fairway seemed headed for a small canal next to the green. The ball hit the concrete lining the waterway, bounced across the water and rolled within 10 feet of the hole. He two-putted for par.

“That’s probably one of the luckiest breaks I’ve ever seen,” Merrick said.

Perez, who led the first three days before falling three shots off Stricker’s pace, had said the ideal conditions made the early rounds “like playing in a dome.”

Not so on closing day.

Club selection, figuring distance and direction, all became a challenge. The wind would quiet one moment, then gust and swirl the next. Flagsticks on the greens rocked back and forth with the flags flapping, go still, then just as suddenly begin shuddering again.

That took its toll on Stricker.

“We would feel it in our face on one hole, and the same hole it would feel downwind. So it was all over the place and difficult to pick a correct club,” Stricker said. “It was hard for me to feel comfortable with anything, and it showed for me a couple of times today.”

Joe Durant’s tour record for 90 holes, 36-under 324 in the 2001 Hope, seemed in peril as records fell in the early rounds. Then the wind, often a factor in the Hope over the years, finally began blowing on the fifth day.

Stricker was 33 under after four rounds, bettering the tour’s 72-hole record of 31 under set by Ernie Els in his victory at the 2003 Mercedes Championships. Stricker’s 61-62 on the third and fourth days was a low for consecutive rounds; Mark Calcavecchia set the record by shooting 60-64 in the 2001 Phoenix Open, and Perez tied it with his 61-63 start in the Hope.

Perez earned $918,000, Merrick got $550,800, and Stricker and Weir each took home $295,800.

Palmer, now 79, won the inaugural Hope in 1960, the first of his five victories in the event.