When the U.S. Open tees off at Torrey Pines Golf Course, 156 players will be vying for the honor of winning golf’s national championship. While some will have the benefit of more impressive career results, better scores at Torrey Pines or stats that show they hit the ball longer or putt more consistently, few will have more experience on the seaside La Jolla course than Pat Perez.
Perez, who spent part of his childhood in La Jolla and graduated from Torrey Pines High School, just up the road from the golf course by the same name, also spent plenty of hours on the greens at Torrey Pines growing up.
“I used to work at this golf course,” Perez said during a pre-tournament interview at the U.S. Open this week. “I started when I was 13 and worked all the way through high school. So I’ve been around here - I was basically here every day during high school and summers and all that good stuff.”
Now 32, he’s back at his home course this week on golf’s grandest stage. The U.S. Open, one of professional golf’s four major championships - the Masters, the British Open and the PGA Championship are the others - is being contested Thursday through Sunday at the municipal course on Torrey Pines Mesa for the first time in the track’s history. The event is expected to bring 40,000 to 50,000 spectators to the golf course each day and plenty of national attention.
Torrey Pines’ majestic seaside location and foreboding greens will be in the spotlight, but Perez just looks at it as home.
He began working at Torrey Pines when he was in high school and performed just about every job imaginable. He cleaned and put away golf carts, he cleaned golf balls and drove the caged cart that picks balls up on the driving range. He worked the cash register inside the pro shop. And he did it all for minimum wage and the opportunity to play golf for free.
He wasn’t fully aware at the time that he happened to be doing it on one of the most revered municipal courses in the country or one that would be a future site for the U.S. Open.
“I couldn’t even tell you what I made,” Perez said. “It was just the fact that I got free golf.
“It was nice to have an extra hundred bucks or two hundred bucks or whatever for high school. But it was the fact that I had free cart and free golf, all the balls I could hit. And I hit probably all of them.
“Yeah, and I picked them up. That was the pay for me - because we couldn’t join a country club, because they were too expensive here. So getting that was just a bonus. And it happened to be Torrey Pines on top of it - that was the best part about it.”
Perez won some big junior tournaments at Torrey Pines, too, and even beat a teenaged Tiger Woods for the 1993 Junior World title.
As a professional, his results have been mixed on his home course. In seven starts at the Buick Invitational, the PGA Tour event held at Torrey Pines each February, Perez has missed the cut four times, but he has also finished in a tie for sixth, when he shot 278 in 2006.
Despite his limited success, it’s safe to say Perez knows the fairways and greens at Torrey Pines better than he does at any other golf course. While it will be set up to play much more difficult for the U.S. Open than he’s ever seen it, he doesn’t expect to feel lost out there - quite the contrary.
“It’s awesome to see it,” he said. “It’s fun to play because it’s so much different. But it’s still got that same feel. It’s got the same wind. Every hole is the same shape. I think it’s great.”
Perez’s connections at Torrey Pines run deep. Some of the people he worked with back in his high school days are still employed at the course, and his father has been a starter at the Buick Invitational for 15 years. He has even experienced the thrill of earning a morning tee time by arriving just after midnight and sleeping in his car parked alongside the putting green.
He didn’t need to be part of the so-called “dawn patrol” to get onto Torrey Pines this week, and he said he’s looking forward to experiencing his home course under the pressure that comes with a major championship.
“When I’ve gone to other majors you get there and go, ‘Oh, my God, it’s awesome here - it’s a major … ' " he said.
“Here, I’ve seen these holes so many times that I’m not seeing it as the U.S. Open. I’m just kind of seeing it as Torrey Pines, a place I love to play.”
More on the U.S. Open
The U.S. Open for Neophytes
U.S. Open Schedule of Events
History of the U.S.