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Perks Geared Up For Masters Debut

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AUGUSTA, Ga. ' Craig Perks knew exactly what was in the envelope when the special delivery arrived at his house late last month. Even so, this was one to savor.
 
After tearing open the perforated seal, Perks pulled out a cream-colored piece of stationery. Printed on it was one of the most treasured messages in golf.
 
``The Board of Governors at the Augusta National Golf Club cordially invites you to participate in the 2002 Masters Tournament,'' he was informed.
 
Perks was officially the last man invited to the play in the Masters, a late addition that came courtesy of his unexpected victory three weeks ago at The Players Championship.
 
With three sensational shots to close out the tournament, Perks took home a check for $1.08 million that day at the TPC at Sawgrass.
 
But really, the piece of paper that arrived at his home in Lafayette, La., was every bit as valuable to him.
 
``My wife and I sat down and opened that one together,'' Perks said. ``It was pretty special.''
 
This is the first trip to Augusta National for the 35-year-old New Zealander. Perks, a college All-American who didn't make it to the PGA Tour until he was 33, estimates he's had five offers to play the hallowed course on non-tournament weeks.
 
``But I've politely declined,'' he said. ``I wanted to earn my way here.''
 
Now that he has, he looks at the course from a very different perspective than most of the other 88 entrants.
 
After all, this is a year of great change at Augusta National. Nine holes have been lengthened, a total of 285 yards have been added to the course, and the differences have been the main topic of conversation in the buildup.
 
``It's going to be a new course for everybody, in a way,'' Sergio Garcia said.
 
Perks, meanwhile, is coming in with a blank slate, no preconceived ideas. His only view of the course has come from his couch in front of the television set, which is where he expected to be again this year for golf's first major.
 
``I don't know what to expect, and I think that could be somewhat of an advantage,'' Perks said. ``But the big disadvantage is that you need so much experience on the greens, and I don't have any.''
 
Ah, the greens.
Change the course as they might, it's hard to imagine that the very fast, deeply contoured putting surfaces -- and how the best in the game handle them -- won't be the deciding factor when Sunday rolls around.
 
Perks played nine holes with Raymond Floyd on Monday, and spent as much time as he could quizzing the 1976 champion on pin placements, speed and break.
 
Just how tough could these greens be?
 
``We were calling them blues,'' Chris DiMarco said after his practice round Monday, referring to the hue a super slick putting surface can take on. ``It was like, 'How many blues did you hit today? Because those greens aren't really green.''
 
Perks said the greens at Augusta on Monday were as fast as the greens were the Sunday of the final round of The Players Championship in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. That day, several players said those greens were as brutal as they had ever been on the ultra-challenging Stadium Course.
 
But Perks persevered in a finish so great, it has already been made into a promotional commercial for the PGA Tour.
 
He chipped in for eagle on No. 16, snaked a 28-foot putt into the hole on No. 17, the island hole, and saved the tournament with a chip-in for par on No. 18.
 
It was his first PGA Tour victory and it came in the tournament many consider the toughest test in golf. New Zealanders largely considered it the biggest achievement by one of their countrymen on a golf course since Bob Charles won the 1963 British Open.
 
``It was pretty overwhelming,'' Perks said.
 
The victory brought with it a three-year exemption to the Masters, a tournament he would not have made otherwise, because he was the 203rd-ranked player in the world.
 
Since then, he has moved up to No. 64 in the world. He's ranked third on the money list this year, just behind Tiger Woods and Jose Maria Olazabal. Instead of sitting on the couch this week, he's living out a dream, albeit with a short time to prepare.
 
``Getting here was a logistical nightmare,'' Perks said. ``But the people here have taken care of me very well. And sitting on the couch or coming to Augusta -- that was a pretty easy choice.'
 
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