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THE PGA TOUR is sport's ultimate meritocracy, where there are no guaranteed contracts and a player's worth is quantified daily by the numbers penciled on a scorecard. But life isn't always fair when it comes to making it to the Tour, and whether a player gets to chase the dream in the big leagues often has as much to do with luck and pluck as skill. The soldiers of fortune on the Sunday leader board at the FBR Open were a reminder of how perilous the journey can be. � The 54-hole leader, Kenny Perry, once went broke playing the minitours, and he was so dispirited with his playing prospects that he was strongly considering taking a job in a friend's dry-cleaning business. Instead he borrowed $5,000 for one last hurrah at Q school. Nearly $30 million in earnings later, Perry, 48, is one of the game's great success stories.
Battling Perry throughout a taut Sunday at TPC Scottsdale was rookie James Nitties, 26, a cocky, charismatic Aussie whose on-course insouciance belies a hardscrabble background. The son of a fishmonger, Nitties had had a hand-to-mouth golf career; at a long-ago amateur event he sold his driver to cover expenses, then won the tournament using a three-wood off the tee. Nitties turned pro in late 2004 and in his third professional start finished second at the Australian PGA. A star was born, or so it seemed, but in the summer of '05 he was stricken with reactive arthritis. Already a lean 6'1", Nitties lost 40 pounds and spent a month in a hospital. It took him nearly a year and a half to get healthy—today he manages the arthritis through exercise and a daily regimen of meds—and his career got a boost when he was chosen as a contestant on the Golf Channel reality show Big Break: Mesquite, which aired in the fall of '07. After knocking around the Nationwide tour last year, Nitties finally earned his way to the bigs via a strong second-place finish at Q school. Two weeks ago, at the Bob Hope Classic, he announced his arrival with a 62 during the fourth round, though he was so far back he still missed the cut.
Nitties plays with the palpable desire of someone who's never been handed a thing, but another Sunday protagonist radiated the same kind of desperate intensity. Playing alongside Perry, a stroke back at the outset of the final round, was 30-year-old rookie Scott Piercy, and he, too, was trying to make the most of his long-awaited big break. For most of the 21st century Piercy had been a kind of cult figure, his street cred established in cutthroat money games in his native Las Vegas and some very low rounds during PGA Tour Monday qualifying, the Darwinian shootout during which five or six dozen dreamers compete for four spots in that week's tournament. From 2003 to '08, Piercy successfully Monday-qualified for 20 Tour events, and his heroics included an 80-footer to win a playoff that got him into the 2005 Western Open, at which he went on to finish 40th. "I was saying for a long time that Scott was the best player in golf without a place to play," says his lifelong swing instructor, Tom Carlson.
Piercy's fortunes began to shift when he successfully Mondayed for the 2005 AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. Here he picks up the story: "I wound up playing a practice round with an amateur named Craig Johnson. He had a golf buddy in Florida who had a bookie in New York...." Long story short: In '07 a syndicate of 20 high rollers backed Piercy with the $180,000 buy-in at the Ultimate Game, the hucksters' tournament put on by Vegas casino czar Steve Wynn that paid $2 million to the winner. It was there that Piercy's legend got a wider airing. Three strokes down standing on the 13th tee, he birdied five of the last six holes to roar to victory. "The money let me breathe," says Piercy, who kept slightly less than half of the loot with the rest going to his backers. "It meant I didn't have to keep playing hurt." Piercy took it easy for the better part of six months to heal a banged-up left wrist, an injury he had been playing through to put food on the table for his wife and two young sons.
He resurfaced on the Nationwide tour last year, having earned his spot through yet another trip to Q school. It was the first time he enjoyed status on any decent tour, and Piercy experienced a breakthrough year that included a scorching final-round 61 to win the tournament in Wichita, Kans.
Ending up ninth on the Nationwide money list shot Piercy to the PGA Tour, and in just a month he has been a revelation, finishing 12th at the Sony Open and 19th at the Hope. At the FBR he just kept coming, making eight birdies in the first 13 holes on Saturday to open a four-stroke lead. He got a little tentative on the way in, making three bogeys to get passed by the hard-charging Perry, but by then Piercy had already made a strong impression.
"I'll leave it at this: He doesn't lack for confidence," says Tour veteran Charley Hoffman, who also makes his home in Las Vegas. "Sometimes Scott rubs guys the wrong way out here. Actually, everywhere. But you have to have that belief in yourself to be a great player."
Both rookies were pushed to their limits during the final round of the FBR. Nitties conjured a flawless front nine, making four birdies to take the lead at the turn, but he took his foot off the gas at the wrong time. He made seven straight pars on the back nine before a sloppy bogey at 17 ended his bid. Piercy, too, played fearlessly for much of the final round, with a birdie at the 10th hole giving him the outright lead. But three straight bogeys followed, and he ceded the stage to Perry, the cagiest of veterans. Perry didn't have his best stuff, but he managed his game and emotions well enough to cobble together a closing 69. Shaking off a 72nd-hole bogey, he trumped Hoffman in a playoff, the 13th victory of Perry's late-blooming career.
Afterward both Piercy and Nitties accentuated the positives. They are now well positioned for what is shaping up as a lively rookie-of-the-year race that also figures to include Webb Simpson, the sweet-swinging 23-year-old by way of Wake Forest who had top 10s at the Sony and the Hope, and was tied for fifth at FBR through two rounds before having a rough weekend. Piercy and Nitties now have a great jump on keeping their cards for next year—Piercy's tie for sixth was worth $194,250, while Nitties's tie for fourth came with $264,000. Nitties, especially, can use the dough. He still lives at home with his parents in Cardiff, outside Newcastle, and he drives a 1997 Mitsubishi Lancer.
But the value of their successful week in the desert can't be fully measured in dollars or FedEx Cup points. After such circuitous journeys, both of these rookies have finally arrived. At the end of a nerve-jangling Sunday, Nitties tried to put into words what he had learned. "It's sort of made me realize that I'm worthy of playing on the PGA Tour," he said. He could have been speaking for Piercy. It should be noted that 20 years ago Perry had a similar awakening.