I n 1989 every dude at my junior high school wanted to get their hands on some Jordan IVs. And suddenly there was a pair right in front of me, at the bottom of a trash can — the same trash can where I had seen my buddy throw them out after math class a couple of hours earlier.
I took a closer look. The gray trim had faded. They were mud-splotched. The laces were frayed. Honestly, I’ve never seen shoes that looked so bad.
They looked like s***. But to me they looked like beautiful s*** … and I thought they still had some potential.
I checked to make sure nobody was looking, and then pulled them out of the garbage and quickly kicked off my shoes. I slipped those bad boys on and knelt down to lace them up as tight as I could.
I stood back up and looked down.
Nice — they fit!
I finally owned a pair of Jordan IVs. The white, cement-gray combo.
I didn’t care that the thin, clear plastic bubbles under both heels had popped. It didn’t matter, really. Because these were the shoes I had always wanted.
I don’t think I ever wore those Jordans to school. They looked so s****y, which is probably why my buddy had thrown them away in the first place. But I guess wearing them wasn’t the point. I guess being able to tell myself that I had my own pair of Jordan IVs was good enough. I mean, I had shoes — always did. I loved my Reeboks. But I really wanted this particular pair of Jordans … I wanted to have sweet kicks like my friends.
But the thing is, I wasn’t really like them.
You’re probably wondering why I’m telling you about finding Jordans in the trash — and why I think that it was an important moment in my life. Many think they know who I am, but the truth is, I’m so much different from how I’m portrayed by the media. Aren’t I the guy who’s irresponsible because I was kicked off the Arizona State team 20 years ago? Who’s a hot head because I flung my club across the fairway at Pebble Beach in the fourth PGA Tour event of my career? Who came under fire recently because people thought I had dissed Tiger Woods? Some of you may think that I’m a jerk. But what I am is a straight shooter. My whole career — my whole life — has been packed into three or four moments, when there’s really so much more to it. I just turned 41, and while I don’t feel like I need to win everybody over, I do think it’s necessary to set some things straight.
Around the time I was 14, I started to spend every summer day working at Torrey Pines Golf Course in La Jolla, California. At around 8 a.m., I’d climb on the bus in Cardiff with a used set of clubs that were too big for me, hoping to use them that day. But that rarely happened. Because when I got to the course, my primary job was to replace divots on the driving range and shag balls for the golfers. I made minimum wage, but I also cleaned the clubs of people who had played that day, hoping to make an extra $20 in tips. I’d head home at around 11 p.m. exhausted, my unused clubs clanking against one another as I trudged through the front door.
My parents raised me and my brother in a three-bedroom, 2,000-square foot home. My dad worked at IBM and my mom was in real estate, and they always tried to do their best for me: They took time out of their schedules to drive me around to local tournaments, and paid my entry fees instead of saving the money for something more important. They were great parents. We lived in a very expensive part of the country and I was playing an expensive game. That was just the reality for me and my family. So if I wanted to play golf, I knew I had to come up with some of the money for entry fees myself.
At every tournament, kids size up their opponents. My God, everyone must’ve thought that I was some sort of a******. I had clubs that were too big for me and was wearing high-top Reeboks instead of golf shoes. They must’ve been thinking, What is he doing here?
But when I would let that first drive fly, everyone knew why I was there.
Over time, I began to make a bit of a name for myself in the area by winning week after week. But no matter what, the morning after every tournament, I was back at Torrey wiping down carts or kissing ass to another foursome for some extra cash.
Sometimes, I’d see my friends roll up to Torrey in their brand new cars. Man, I always used to wish I was hanging with them instead of working. But every once in a while, instead of going to play Torrey, those guys would head to a private club they belonged to and invite me along.
Those were the best days.
I was a freshman in high school the first time I rolled up to La Quinta Country Club with my friend and his dad. This place was like nothing I had ever seen before: the pristine driving range, the impeccable clubhouse, the wood-paneled locker room. Not to mention the fact that the course was in perfect condition.
This wasn’t a golf course. Nah, this was heaven.
But for all the glamour, the thing that I remember the most was the food.
The halfway house had these amazing beef sliders. I ate one and mentioned to my friend’s dad how good it was.
“Well, take another, Pat!”
I paused for a second.
“I can take another?”
“Oh, c’mon. Take as many as you’d like!”
Each individual slider was about $9, and my friend’s dad was paying for it all. Nine dollars would usually pay for two or three meals at Filiberto’s, my local joint. Cheap Mexican food was what I usually ate. All I could think was, Man, I’d need to clean a lot of golf clubs and repair a lot of divots to be able to afford this type of lifestyle.
When we got to the 10th tee, I found out that it’s pretty hard to swing properly with all that food in your stomach.
I think I bogeyed 10.
That night, when I collapsed on my bed after telling my parents about my day, I thought about how special it would be to spend every weekend at a place like La Quinta playing on beautiful fairways and greens and just laughing with my friends.
Who knew that one day that would be a reality?
The week of the Buick Invitational of California was the only time I would skip school.
Man, when that tournament would come to Torrey in February, it was the best thing on earth. Guys like me who worked on the course could make a bunch of extra money and get to caddy for an amateur in the pro-am on the Wednesday before the tournament began. Most of the time you and your amateur would get paired with some no-name pro. But sometimes you could get lucky.
When I was 16, I got lucky.
I was standing outside the caddy master’s hut waiting for my name to be called when I heard somebody say, “Hey Perez … go get that bag over there. You’re with Daly’s group and caddying for his amateur partner.”
Every other kid there was staring at me.
“John Daly? I’m with John Daly’s group?”
“Better hurry up,” the caddy master said, smiling. “You’re going on the North Course.”
You gotta understand … John Daly was Tiger Woods before Tiger Woods. A year earlier, Daly had won the PGA Championship at Crooked Stick with a big mullet, a pocket full of smokes and the longest swing on Tour.
He was my hero.
Nearly midway through the round, something completely crazy and unexpected happened. The amateur who I was caddying for mentioned that I was a decent player and said that I swung the club just like John.
Daly looked at me.
“Huh, no s***,” he said. “Here, take this.”
He handed me his driver. He handed me his f****** driver. The Cobra Ultramid with the red titanium shaft and the kevlar face. This thing was basically folklore, and now it was in my hands.
I looked up at him. He gave me a little nod.
“I want to see you hit it.”
Holy s***. Holy s***. Holy s***.
Somehow I managed to put the ball on a tee. I was trying to act all cool, but my heart was racing. As I started my backswing, the club felt like it weighed a million pounds. It was like I had never swung a golf club in my life.
Just don’t top it. Please, God, just don’t top it.
When I made contact with the ball, I knew right away where it was going:
Straight down the middle.
And not just down the middle … far down the middle. I absolutely smashed it. With John Daly’s driver. Just completely smoked it. And as we walked down the fairway, we all realized something: I had hit it past John Daly. I had hit it past John Effing Daly!
Now, it should be noted … I was teeing off from the amateur tees. But, hey, I still flew one past Big John.
A few months later, in 1993, I entered the junior world championships. Maybe I was feeling confident from outdriving JD, but I’d like to think I was playing some consistently good golf.
In 1990, a kid from Orange County named Eldrick Woods had won the Boys 13–14 division. In ’91, the same kid won the Boys 15–17 division. Now I was going to get a chance to take on this phenom. Only problem was, I didn’t own a set of clubs.
Kind of an issue.
I had won all the qualifiers with a mismatched set of clubs that I had borrowed from about five different people. But for world juniors, my friend’s father let me use his Ping Berylliums.
And I won.
I beat the guy we now know as Tiger by eight shots with clubs that were meant for someone two or three inches taller than me. I’ll never forget the sound Tiger’s club made when it struck the ball, and how valiant of a competitor he was that week. I’ll also never forget winning the way I did.
Shortly after, my friend’s dad allowed me to keep those clubs.
Following my victory, Arizona State offered me a scholarship. I had always assumed that I wouldn’t be able to afford college. But suddenly, I didn’t have to worry about that anymore. Things were looking up.
Then I nearly died.
One summer night in ’94, my friends and I were driving to the movies when a car ran a red light and nearly smoked us in the middle of an intersection. My friend swerved, narrowly missing the car, but sending us up onto the median and into a roadway sign. We busted through the sign and went tumbling down a 25-foot cliff, where we came to a stop on top of a parked van. I blacked out during the crash and don’t remember anything about it except for waking up, with glass everywhere, unable to move my legs. I had cracked my pelvis in three places.
I was bedridden for the next five months, and I remained on crutches until February 1995. After I was finally able to walk on my own again, I had to work hard on my game so that ASU wouldn’t rescind its offer. I wasn’t going to f*** up that opportunity.
In spite of the challenges, my game ended up coming together nicely. So much so that I kept my scholarship and qualified for the most prestigious amateur tournament in the world — the U.S. Amateur — all this just months after my near-death experience.
But when I told the Sun Devils the good news, they told me that, because the tournament conflicted with freshman orientation, I wouldn’t be able to play. I thought it was bulls***.
As much as it sucked, I rolled with it.
In 1996, my teammates and I won the NCAA championship. I’m proud to say that I was a part of that team, not only for what it did for the school, but for what it did for my psyche. Life was good — I was getting an education and playing golf.
But neither of those were going to last.
One summer day, just a few months after we had hoisted the trophy as collegiate champs, my coach called me.
He told me that he was pulling my scholarship.
He said that it was because there were a lot of other recruits coming into the program, but from my perspective, we didn’t see eye to eye on a lot of things. I didn’t really buy it — I still don’t.
Whatever the reason, with a simple phone call, everything I had worked for had been wiped away.
Chris Coduto/Icon Sportswire
The worst part was that I couldn’t afford school without a scholarship. So I had to drop out and move back home to San Diego where I got a job as a salesman … at a Golf Mart.
It was f****** miserable.
So miserable, in fact, that I ended up quitting after only a month or two. My dad — who was always trying to help me — linked me up with Gary Adams (the founder of TaylorMade Golf), who was starting a new golf company called McHenry Metals. For a couple of months I was this guy’s glorified chauffeur. When I wasn’t taking him around town to breakfast, his acupuncture appointments or his doctor’s office, I was driving the company’s s****y-ass van two hours north to Long Beach, where I’d drop off shafts, clubheads and grips to be put together in the McHenry Metals offices. I did this five days a week for $4.75 an hour. I was living in a tiny apartment in San Diego, and what little money I made went straight to my $700 rent.
It was one of the hardest times in my life because I didn’t feel like I had a future.
But then something pretty incredible happened. I got a break. A big one. Sometimes in life you just need one person to believe in you — to help you get off your ass and fight. And that’s exactly what happened.
Robert Beck/SI/Getty Images
I was 20 years old when a family friend at Torrey called up my dad one day and told him that I was too good of a golfer to be doing what I was doing. He said that he would sponsor me by ponying up a couple of hundred bucks so I could play in some events.
I thanked our friend profusely — and then I went to work.
After eight months of barely playing golf, I won the first event I entered, a one-day tournament on the Golden State Tour. At the winner’s ceremony, the tournament director gave me a choice: I could either keep my amateur status, or I could take my winnings and turn professional.
I thought about it for a second.
“Well, how much is the check?”
“Five hundred bucks.”
Without a moment’s hesitation, I said, “F***! I’ll take the money!”
So the very next day, I played in another one-day tournament. As I was walking off the 18th green, an old buddy of mine who was at the course that day asked me what I had shot. When I told him, his eyes lit up.
“Dude, you won!”
I only wanted to know one thing.
“Two thousand dollars!”
I stood there in amazement, with my hand over my mouth.
I’ve made $2,500 in two days, which is like three months of working at the range and driving someone around for minimum wage. S***, I can keep doing this!
And so in 1997, I made the decision that would change my life forever: Golf was my future.
Canada is a great place, man.
I mean, I love the U.S., but Canada’s pretty darn cool.
After I turned professional, the same friend who had sponsored my return to the game suggested that I go to the Canadian tour to get some experience before I enrolled in Q school back in the States. So in the summer of ’98, I ended up visiting Vancouver and Quebec and Calgary and all these other amazing cities, drinking all different types of beers, eating different foods, meeting different people and learning about different cultures.
As a 22-year-old kid who had never been outside of the Southwestern United States, it was frickin’ cool.
But for all that I was learning about Canadian people and their customs, I found myself learning so much more about how to be a professional golfer. When you play golf on the Canadian tour, you’re either one of two things: young, inexperienced and trying to understand what it takes to be a professional; or older and making one last push to reach the PGA Tour. I was in the former category, but the guys I hung around with the most were in the latter. I learned a lot from those guys, especially about how to play on the weekend.
On May 29, 2000 — about three years after my brief stint at a Golf Mart — I received a call from the Buy.com Tour. They wanted me in Scranton, Pennsylvania, for the start of the Steamtown Classic on June 1. That night, I drove 21 hours from Vancouver down to San Diego so I could hop on a flight as soon as possible.
Even though I missed the cut in Scranton, there was a silver lining. The Buy.com Tour invited me to play again the following week, and if I performed well, I could keep my playing privileges. I put together a string of good rounds, and in my fourth tournament — the Wichita Open — I finished fourth and picked up $17,000.
Three weeks later, I entered the Ozarks Open in Springfield, Missouri. By the end of the week, after winning a three-man playoff, I was able to call myself a champion on a professional tour and picked up $76,500. Had I never set foot in Canada and watched how the veterans there handled the pressure on the weekends, I don’t think I would’ve ever come close to hoisting a trophy.
By winning, I had the chance to play in every Buy.com event for the rest of the season. In 2001, I finished first at Q school, which guaranteed that I would be a member of the PGA Tour in 2002. From the moment I received my Tour card and put it in my wallet, I made myself a promise:
I will never let this f****** thing go.
Sixteen years. Sixteen straight years on Tour. No matter what, nothing will ever take away from the fact that I have worked my ass off to keep my spot on the PGA Tour.
When I was a young man, I knew failure wasn’t an option. I’ve maintained that attitude to this day. I’m happy with my career, not because of my two PGA Tour victories, but because I’ve been able to support myself and my family. In a sport where nothing is guaranteed — everything from your playing privileges at the outset of each year to the amount of money you make each week — I’ve made it my No. 1 goal to remain on Tour, and I’ve succeeded.
The media often condense my entire career into a couple of moments. That stuff used to infuriate me. But while I was sitting on my couch in Arizona last summer — with a cold one in one hand and my arm around my wife — I realized that I had to stop listening to all the outside noise and remember who I really was. My wife was the one who helped me come to that resolution. I owe her so much.
I guess if there’s one thing you should know about me, it’s that I’ll never give up. In just a week or so, I’ll be playing in the Masters. I’ve gone from a blue-collar Mexican-American kid to a PGA Tour pro playing at Augusta.
Oh, and remember that course that my friend and his dad brought me to? La Quinta? The one where I couldn’t eat enough beef sliders? Well, in 2009, I won the Bob Hope Classic there. A PGA Tour event. I won nearly a million dollars.
What a difference 25 years makes, huh?
Who knows, after the Masters, maybe my wife and I will celebrate with a couple of $9 mini hamburgers. You know, just for old time’s sake.