RENO -- When PGA rookie Pat Perez and the rest of the 132 players begin first round play today in the 4th annual Reno-Tahoe Open, they realize their biggest obstacle to winning has already been avoided.
"I think if you play well enough to win a tournament, your odds are better without the top players here," said J.P. Hayes on Wednesday.
Hayes, of course, is referring to the NEC World Golf Championships, which is also being played this weekend at Sahalee Country Club in Sammamish, Wash. The top 50 players in the official world golf rankings qualified for the NEC, while the second-tier players are at Montreux Golf and Country Club.
Does that mean winning will be any easier? Hardly.
"We still have great players here that have won major tournaments," said Perez, who has four top-10 finishes this year. "It's not a freebie this week by any means. You're going to have to shoot low."
Despite the lack of talent, there's never any shortage of stories at the RTO. Perez might be this year's best one.
The leading candidate for rookie of the year honors already has two second-place finishes this season, but that includes his disaster at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.
Perez started Sunday's final round back in February with a four-stroke lead. But inconsistent play eventually shortened his lead to one stroke over Matt Gogel going into the 18th. Two errant tee shots by Perez, including one that landed in the Pacific Ocean, eventually gave Gogel an improbable three-stroke victory. Perez cried and he's been questioned about his emotional stability and if it will allow him to ever win a tournament.
"I'm emotional. I'm that way with in every situation you put me in, on and off the golf course," said Perez, who also finished in a tie for second at the Buick Classic. "It's just the way I am. I learned more losing that tournament than anything. When I'm in that situation again, I just need to focus and not think about what else is going on and focus on the shot at hand.
It's not like winning under pressure has always eluded Perez. Perez, who had been a member of the Buy.com Tour the past two years, took medalist honors in Q-school last year to earn his first PGA Tour card. He was a member of Arizona State University's 1996 NCAA Championship team and in 1993, Perez finished eight strokes ahead of Tiger Woods to win the Junior World Title at Torrey Pines. Woods finished fourth.
"People didn't know who I was before I came here," said Perez about joining the tour. "In Q-school, they kind of had an idea. And after Pebble, people now know me for the wrong reason. It's been an up and down year. I missed a lot more cuts than I think I should have. It's been roller coaster the whole year."
Perez has played in 22 tournaments this year and earned more than $1.1 million, which puts him 33rd on the money list. However, he's missed the cut in half of those tournaments, yet feels confident heading into the RTO. But he did say visions of Pebble Beach still enter his mind.
"It took me a while to not think about it all the time, but I still think about it occasionally," said Perez, who's listed as 45-1 favorite to win the RTO. "I'm very pleased with what's going on this year, I expected to have a good year. I'm real excited to play this week. I think the course is in phenomenal shape. My family and everyone is within an hour's flight of getting here. There's just something about being back on the West coast (Perez grew up in Arizona).
"I'm going to take this week and really try and focus. My goal the next three weeks is get into the American Express (World Golf Championships event in Ireland)."
That, of course, would need to involve winning.
Chris Riley, fresh off a third-place finish at last week's PGA Championship, is listed as a 20-1 favorite to win the 4th annual RTO. The 1996 UNLV grad finished four strokes back of PGA winner Rich Beem, and three shots back of Tiger Woods at Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska, Minn. Riley, a 20-1 favorite to win this week, has four top-10 finishes this season...
J.P. Hayes, who tied for seventh at last year's RTO, likes his chances, even though he's only had one week off in the past two months.
"The year started off kind of slow for me, but I've kind of kicked it in this summer," said Hayes, who tied for fifth at the Greater Milwaukee Open in July and won the John Deere Classic a few weeks later. "I had a good finish in Milwaukee. When I played well at the John Deere, it came at a good time. But this is my seventh tournament in eight weeks, so I'm a little worn out."
A rarity, the odds makers are completely clue less about who might win the RTO. The field bet, where more than 2/3 of the 132 entrants are part of, is a -160 bet. The favorite is Charles Howell III at 15-1, followed by a list of obscure names at good values. A couple of nice long shots might be Bryce Molder, the 23-year-old former Georgia Tech star who finished in third last year in Reno. Joe Durant, a three-time winner on tour, is listed at 50-1.