Tom Pernice Jr. cares. Not so much about what you think of him, but the billion-dollar white horse that is the PGA Tour, the high-and-mighty stallion that gallops across green fields with nary a hitch in its giddyup.
Other pro sports fight character issues off the field and competitive scandal on it. The tour deals with no such backfire, and on virtually all matters involving business relationships and public perception, the Goody Two-Spikes image is rolled out like a giant parade float.
It has helped make millionaires out of mudders, none of them more appreciative and passionate than Pernice. About 10½ years ago, his 37th birthday landed on the first round of the Colorado Classic, where he would miss his seventh cut in a 10-start stretch on the Nike Tour. Six years had passed since he had held full-time status in the big leagues. A couple of seasons in Europe (1993-94) proved to be a great experience, but since coming home, the results still weren't there.
Pernice hadn't exactly hit rock bottom, but he needed a geologist to help locate his career. "My first five or 10 years [as a pro], my ball-striking numbers weren't very good," says a guy who failed to rank better than 184th in total driving during his initial stint on the tour (1986-90). "When I first got out here, I barely made it through. I basically survived on my short game."
Lo and behold, Pernice retrieved his card at the '96 Q School, lost it, got it back again and wouldn't let go. He didn't crack the top 50 on a money list until age 42 (2001), but in the last four years, he has piled up almost
$7 million in earnings without a victory. Life is a bowl of cherries and he knows it, but it wouldn't take much for the stallion to start running in the wrong direction, at which point things could unravel in a lot less time than it took to make them good.
So Pernice really cares. This is important to remember when assessing the qualities of a guy who ripped the two most powerful men in golf (on separate issues) during a 20-minute binge at last year's Tour Championship. By ranting over commissioner Tim Finchem's attempt to steamroll the process that would determine a FedEx Cup playoff format, then almost reflexively laying into Tiger Woods for skipping that week's event, the conscientious objector known to some of his brethren as "Tommy Police" reminded us that it's not so much how he plays, but what he says and who he slays.
Good cop, bad cop? "You won't find a more loyal friend and a more wonderful human being," says swing coach Jim Hardy, to whom Pernice directs much of the credit for his 14 top-10 finishes in the last three years, each of which ended with Pernice in the top 50 on the money list. "He cares about everything in your life, he's an enormously generous person, but there's another side to Tom that people get to see. He can be brusque."
Just this once, Pernice can't argue. "It's not my strong suit," he says of his tone. "I'll tell you how I feel, and I'm not saying my opinion is always right, but I'm not out to win any popularity contests, either." When he unloaded on Woods and Phil Mickelson for failing to appear at last year's season finale, Pernice heard about it from Philly Mick, no stranger to confrontation himself. The two men are friends, but as Steve Loy, the agent for both players, will tell you, "I've seen Tom stand up for Phil and I've seen him call Phil out."
As for Woods, he declined to comment, at least publicly, on his feelings about Pernice or what was said in Atlanta. Tiger did say that he would likely approach his antagonist at some point to discuss the matter -- there were hard feelings in March 2005 when Pernice, admittedly flabbergasted that Woods had driven the green at Doral's par-4, 372-yard 16th, arrived at Bay Hill 10 days later and asked to have the driver tested. The club passed inspection, but Tiger wasn't thrilled with the insinuation that his dominance comes from an unfair advantage.
His head may be hard, his delivery frosty, but Pernice's skin is thick. "Yeah, we talked, and he wasn't real happy about it, but you know what? A lot of drivers are tested on a weekly basis, and some of them are illegal," he claims. "It's supposed to be a confidential program." A reminder that Woods was the most vocal proponent of driver testing -- and that any request to check his his sticks will be examined.
On that position, Pernice has plenty of company, which is the case far more often than not on matters involving tour procedure. Behind the bluster comes a message with a purpose. To classify him as a radical, rebel or iconoclast would be three steps beyond inaccurate -- Pernice frequently provides 90 decibels of volume to viewpoints many colleagues share but are unwilling to amplify.
"A lot of people don't stand for anything, much less what they really believe in," says Olin Browne, another 47-year-old late bloomer with a keen interest in player-tour relations. "I've also noticed that everybody likes a person who speaks his mind until he says something they don't want to hear. Tom Pernice is passionate and consistent. You always know exactly where he stands."
Lost in the reverberation of the double-barrel blast in Atlanta was that Pernice had considerable support on both issues. A lot of players privately expressed disappointment in Woods' absence, especially since he claimed the need to "recharge his batteries" for 2007, then headed off to play in China the following week. "I don't care where he goes to play, there's no way he'd be making $70 to $100 million a year playing on any other tour in the world," says Lee Janzen, a friend of Tiger's. "He has a pretty good life. Some events are mandatory. The Tour Championship is one of them."
Another veteran even suggested that if Finchem had any guts, he would suspend both players. Talk about radical. "From Tiger and Phil's perspective, our regulations allow them to play when they want," Pernice says now. "I felt badly for [presenting sponsor] Coca-Cola and the people who had tickets to the event, but they had a right to skip. As independent contractors, we decide when and where we play. There are times when that causes some problems."
Because Pernice is good friends with Vijay Singh, you don't have to look long or hard to find a tour pro who thinks the chilly air between Woods and Singh is the reason Pernice goes after Tiger. Ridiculous, says the alleged assassin. "Tiger is 85 percent of the reason the tour is as big and exciting and prosperous as it is," Pernice reckons, leaving us to wonder who gets credit for the other 15 percent. "The guy is phenomenal. Every week he steps to the plate, he delivers. People do not realize how good he is."
In referring to Woods' pass on the Tour Championship as "a disgrace" and questioning the 12-time major champion's commitment to the tour, Pernice's haymaker, one might suppose, served as a brilliant disguise for what was actually a backhanded compliment. Never has the modern game experienced such an obvious competitive dictatorship. Woods has, in a sense, become all that really matters, his dominance on the course driving a vast percentage of corporate interest off it.
Healthy or not, that is the reality. "If we had two or three more Tigers out there, and the odds of that are one in a kajillion, we'd all be in better shape," says Jack Vickers, who recently shut down the International -- once a premier event on the summer schedule but a sponsorless ratings loser in recent years without Woods in the field. Vickers' decision is a scary reminder of the growing chasm between successful and unsuccessful tour stops. Woods' presence is by far the biggest factor in terms of defining success and the widening gap.
Pernice, whose two career wins came at the 1999 Buick Open and '01 International, knows the tour is a star-driven enterprise, which takes us back to Atlanta and the beef with Finchem. The golfer picked up the newspaper that Thursday morning and came across a quote from the commissioner saying the format for the 2007 FedEx Cup playoffs had been finalized. Actually, it wasn't, nor were the unresolved details officially in his jurisdiction. "I was so fired up before I even teed off," Pernice says.
Never mind that it was his first appearance in the Tour Championship. Pernice finished playing, then hammered Finchem for impeding the wheels of progress and overstepping his duties. "He works for us," Pernice announced, one of several gorgeous sound bites that afternoon. The primary issue involved whether to add a cut after each of the first three playoff tournaments. There were no cuts at the time -- 144 players would advance as one bulky squadron all the way to Chicago -- although many players thought a reduction of the fields was a must for postseason success.
Before he served on the 16-man players advisory council or was voted by his peers onto the PGA Tour Policy Board (2002-03), Pernice went to meetings just to learn more about the organization he wanted so much to be a part of. He knew the board was scheduled to convene about a week after the Tour Championship. He also knew that playoff cuts were a key motion on the agenda and that the final decision was to be made by that nine-man committee, which consists of five suits and four players.
Shame on Finchem for grabbing the baton when it wasn't his to grab. "I think it really got the discussion going," Joe Ogilvie, an eight-year tour veteran and board member, says of Pernice's outburst. "A few of us were already there, but whenever you have an outspoken player who is educated on the process, you tend to listen to him. Sometimes it takes a little confrontation to get things going."
Imagine that. The cuts were ratified, the playoffs legitimized, the product made better by a willingness to ditch the original theory: Try it in '07 with everybody playing the first three weeks, then see what happens. It's called accepting a flaw. "Not having a cut was chickening out," Pernice says. "There was talk about reviewing it after a year, and I said, 'You guys are making a big deal out of this FedEx Cup -- we need to sit down and make the best decisions right now.' There are several reasons why not having a cut is no good. From a TV perspective, having cuts makes it a lot more appealing.
It adds a lot of drama."
The irony of it is that Pernice, at least until recently, played the role of a journeyman in its most literal connotation, making him one of dozens of guys you would think would lobby against having cuts after each playoff event. He played on some great teams at UCLA -- Corey Pavin, Steve Pate and Jay Delsing were teammates -- then spent three years in Japan, where he had decent success. Then came five years on the big tour, where Pernice's best showing on the money list was 142nd.
From there it was off to Europe, where the American migrant strengthened an unlikely companionship with the one and only Seve Ballesteros. After tons of practice rounds together, Pernice's short game went from superb to outrageously strong, as he absorbed everything he could from the up-and-down master. "More than anything, I just watched," he says. "Sometimes I think you can learn more that way."
Pernice did two years of time on the Nike Tour, but it wasn't until 2002, when he went to see Hardy, that he finally learned how to hit a golf ball. "When he came to me, Tom lacked power, suffered from a severe lack of accuracy and did not get the ball in the air high enough," the swing coach says, offering a somewhat complete diagnosis. "The first two years, all we worked on was the backswing and the start of the downswing. We had to get him in a position at impact that would allow him to make a living on the tour, because he wasn't making a living at the time."
If you're short, low and crooked off the tee, Hardy might be your man. In 2004 Pernice ranked in the top 25 percent on the tour in driving accuracy, greens in regulation and total driving. The numbers haven't been quite as good since, but Pernice has always known how to score -- 14 top-25s and almost $2.4 million in 2006 offer sufficient testimony.
Still, it's not so much how he plays, but what he says and who he slays. Pernice strongly believes Finchem should initiate a drug-testing program and wonders why the tour would wait until an incident occurs before taking action. He is a staunch advocate of making every player -- in this case, Tiger -- play every tournament on the schedule over a six-year period. "The title sponsor of the Shell Houston Open is paying just as much money as the company hosting the [Buick Invitational]," Pernice says, referring to Woods' monopoly on the first-place check at Torrey Pines.
When asked years ago if he would be interested in joining the tour's player advisory committee, Paul Azinger said he wasn't, then cracked, "I'm not out here to make policy. I'm out here to make history." Tom Pernice Jr. has made friends and enemies. He has made lots of noise and a whole bunch of money, but nothing made him prouder than when his 11-year-old daughter, Brooke, who has been blind since birth, sang the national anthem before a concert given by country music star Darryl Worley.
Brooke Pernice has a much sweeter tone than her daddy, and since last summer, her eyesight has improved remarkably -- she now can decipher outlines and shadows. Yes, life is a bowl of cherries, but sometimes, a lemon can make everything else taste better. "The tour holds these family functions once in a while," Janzen says. "We end up sitting at his table every time."
John Hawkins is a senior writer for Golf World magazine