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Perez on Familiar Ground

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The Post's Len Shapiro reports from the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, where Tiger Woods will play his first competitive rounds after undergoing knee surgery shortly after the Masters in April. Video by washingtonpost.com

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By Leonard Shapiro
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, June 10, 2008; 8:40 PM

SAN DIEGO -- While most of the world television audience and thousands on the grounds will focus Thursday on the marquee pairing of Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods going off the first tee in the opening round of the 108th U.S. Open, Pat Perez will have his own modest gallery of family and friends when he hits off the 10th tee at Torrey Pines South the same exact 8:06 a.m. (PST) starting time as the top two players in the world.

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Southern California natives Woods and Mickelson both have plenty of history at Torrey Pines South, going all the way back to their days as junior golfers. Mickelson, who grew up in San Diego, has won three Buick Invitational titles on the course as a professional, the last in 2001, before the South was redone to attract the Open. Woods's record here has been astounding, with six victories in the Buick Invitational, including the last four straight.

Though Mickelson played his high school golf at Torrey and Woods competed in a number of junior events here, neither one has played more rounds on the course than Perez, a 32-year-old San Diego native who is still looking for his first victory on the PGA Tour.

And wouldn't it be something if it came this week, on a course he first laid eyes on when his father Tony took him here to hit golf balls at the age of 11? Two years later, young Pat had a part-time summer and after-school job picking up golf balls on the driving range, and he kept it all the way through high school as he developed into one of the area's finest young golfers.

In the 1993 Junior World championship at Torrey Pines, Perez shot three straight rounds of 69 to win the title by three strokes. That same year, Woods, a six-time Junior World winner, finished fourth, eight shots behind Perez.

"It wasn't about beating Tiger back then," Perez told the San Diego Tribune recently. "I just wanted to win on my home course."

This week, he would dearly love to do it again, though he also knows full well that he'll have to beat Woods and Mickelson, among many others in the field of 156, to write what would be one of the most improbable local-boy-makes-good golf stories in the history of the game.

The first chapter would have to include his own hard path just to get in the field, through sectional qualifying in Columbus, Ohio, the day after The Memorial, where he tied for 26th after fading down the stretch on Sunday.

"I finished poorly, which I was a little upset about," he said. "I knew I had to get my mind right to play (the qualifier) the next day. Monday morning, I was three over after seven holes. I knew about four- or five-under was going to make it. So I made a late charge with pretty much no energy. I made a 25-footer for birdie at the last hole and they said five was going to be good enough. I was pretty excited. I couldn't have been any happier."

Perez certainly has the credentials to think he has a chance this week at Torrey Pines. The former member of the 1996 NCAA championship Arizona State team is currently No. 55 in the world rankings. This season, he's had six top 25 finishes on the tour, including three top tens, and already has earned over $1 million.

But over the seven years since he turned pro, there also has been a glaring void on Perez's resume. He has never won a golf tournament on the PGA Tour, making it seem even more unlikely that his breakthrough would come here this week, even if he knows the golf course better than any man in the field.

"It's getting old, the be honest with you," Perez said of his frustrating career-long losing streak. "I always feel I'm playing well enough to do it, but for some reason, I haven't made the right shots to get me in the lead or right next to the lead. I'm always three or four back, finishing fourth or sixth, whatever. I'm not making enough things happen down the stretch. I don't know how you do it, but at least I'm getting closer each week. I'm hoping it will happen soon."


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