Rabalais: Craig Perks calls The Players, site of biggest win

Associated Press file photo by CHRIS O'MEARA -- Craig Perks, of Lafayette, waves to the gallery after winning The Players Championship in 2002 at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. Perks will be calling the tournament on TV this week, 12 years after his biggest PGA victory.
Associated Press file photo by CHRIS O'MEARA -- Craig Perks, of Lafayette, waves to the gallery after winning The Players Championship in 2002 at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. Perks will be calling the tournament on TV this week, 12 years after his biggest PGA victory.

The golf world channels its focus onto The Players this week at TPC Sawgrass, where the signature hole is the par-3 17th hole and its now-famous island green.

One of the voices bringing the tournament to the world will be that of Lafayette’s Craig Perks, who won The Players in 2002 with a key birdie on that hole.

The infamous 17th came to be through unintended consequences. It was the spot on the property where architect Pete Dye (who also designed TPC Louisiana) found the best sand to build up the rest of the course from a swampy bog. So much sand was dug out, Dye’s wife Alice suggested they create a lake, thus the island green was born.

Perks’ broadcasting career was born in a similar fashion.

His win in The Players was like a lightning flash in the sky above Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. His finishing flourish — 3-2-3 with a chip in for eagle on the par-5 16th, a birdie putt on 17 and another chip-in birdie on 18 — remains perhaps the greatest closing stretch in the history of The Players. It made him the initial first-time winner in tournament history, a feat matched by Tim Clark in 2010.

The dramatic victory earned Perks invitations to the Masters, U.S. Open and PGA Championship and enshrinement at Sawgrass on a list of champions that includes Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Adam Scott, Fred Couples and Shreveport’s Hal Sutton.

Unfortunately for Perks, it looked like in the long run Leo Durocher would be proven right. One of the PGA Tour’s truly nice guys, the Louisiana-Lafayette alum and New Zealand native never won again on tour. In fact, he posted just two more career top-10 finishes.

“I wasn’t prepared for the demands, the spotlight, the scrutiny of winning an event of that magnitude,” Perks, 47, said. “I had dreams and goals, but never in my wildest dreams did I think I would win a tournament like The Players.”

A little more than five years after his ultimate moment, Perks said his game was “in shambles.”

He tried to change his swing after winning The Players, but instead of improving his career prospects, it doomed them. He missed the cut or withdrew from 32 of the last 33 PGA Tour events he entered. By the time he teed it up for the final time, at the end of the 2007 season at Walt Disney World, his five-year exemption from winning The Players exhausted, Perks was looking for a different path.

He returned to Lafayette to become director of instruction at Le Triomphe in Broussard, a seemingly satisfying way to channel his love and knowledge of the game and spend quality time with his wife Maureen and their children Meghan and Nigel.

“I love teaching golf and wanted to give something back,” Perks said. “Having a good, well-rounded knowledge of the golf swing, I thought I’d be helpful.”

At the same time his playing career was ending, the head of PGA Tour Entertainment offered Perks the chance to be an announcer on the international feed of the Tour Championship. That “audition” led to more TV work on PGATour.com’s “Live@” streaming coverage, which by 2010 led to regular work on the Golf Channel calling Web.com Tour events as a lead broadcaster for that tour.

Perks has become so busy as a broadcaster he left the job as a teaching pro at Le Triomphe far behind. He estimates he’ll call about 25 events between the two tours this year, his distinctive “Cajun Kiwi” accent easily recognizable even when his face isn’t on the screen.

“Makes us sound a little more educated,” Perks said jokingly.

“From the Web.com Tour to the PGA Tour to DirecTV’s enhanced channel (on PGA Tour telecasts), it’s plenty,” Perks said. “It gives me a good opportunity to be out there and enough weeks to be at home.”

Certainly there are times when he wishes things had turned out differently, that he could have decided when to leave his playing career behind instead of his playing career leaving him. But very few athletes get to step away in the time and manner of their choosing, and Perks is enjoying himself too much now to be bitter.

“I’m still very thankful for being able to get my foot in the door of golf and being able to remain in the game, a game I still have a love affair with,” Perks said. “And I don’t have to go through the daily grind of being a player.”

Sometimes nice guys do finish first, even if the game they’re playing changes.

Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter @RabalaisAdv.