Tough Talker

pernicebook_299x299_0.jpg
Last year, Pernice made $2.4 million and finished 25th on the money list.
Fred Vuich/SI

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.

Back to Golf.com homepage | Customizable leaderboard | Photos: Round 1 | Photos: Woods shoots 75 | Read the entire blog