Ray Kralis ’90, longtime head coach of the Illinois State University men’s golf team, is a teacher, a nurturer, and an evaluator of talent. When he recruited David Perkins ’21 out of East Peoria Community High School, he had some inkling of his potential, but Perkins exceeded his coach’s and his own expectations.
“From the time he walked in to when he finished he learned to believe in himself,” Kralis said of Perkins’ growth as a player.
For Perkins, 23, who finished his collegiate career with his second consecutive Missouri Valley Conference golfer of the year honor, in addition to being named conference golfer of the week a record 15 times, the golf dream is not over. It’s just getting started as he takes his shot at joining the game’s elite ranks as a touring professional, with the ultimate goal of joining the PGA Tour. Kralis likes his chances.
“I’ve got a sense of the challenge he faces,” Kralis said. “He’s got the game to do it, the work ethic, and a great mental approach.”
A possible glimpse of the future came this past summer when Perkins played in his first PGA Tour event, the John Deere Classic, at TPC Deere Run in Silvis. Perkins felt pretty comfortable on the biggest stage he’s experienced.
He was part of an “All-Midwest” group of players awarded sponsor exemptions back in July. In making the announcement, Tournament Director Clair Peterson said these were six “high-quality players who have Midwestern backgrounds.”
Perkins missed the cut but got to live like the pros do for a week and had over 80 friends in his gallery each day. He was pleased with how he hit the ball, particularly in comparison to the talented players he saw up close that week.
“I hit a lot of the same shots those guys hit,” he said. “I hit it really solid. If I make a few putts, I think I make the weekend.”
Kralis, who was in the crowd, liked what he saw.
“He looked like he belonged,” Kralis said. “If he gains a little more experience and gets more comfortable being uncomfortable, I look for him to continue to grow and shine.”
Perkins said he met great people during the week, including Peterson.
“I won’t forget him, great guy,” Perkins said.
He was also paired for two days with veteran tour pro Rob Oppenheim, who Perkins said was gracious and supportive knowing that this was his PGA Tour debut.
Perkins continued tournament play during the summer on the Forme Tour, and here at home had a ninth-place finish at the Illinois Open. He also attended qualifying school for the Korn Ferry Tour, a level of competition similar to Triple-A professional baseball. He played his way into the second stage with a fourth-place finish and had a putt that would have sent him to the final stage.
“I went for it and missed the comeback,” he said.
This winter he’s working hard on his game, staying with friends in Port St. Lucie, Florida.
“I evaluate my game each week, and I do that every week,” Perkins said. “I stick to what I’ve been doing in practice, trusting what I can do. My thing is I’ve got to stay patient, and it’ll come together.”
He’s also developed a friendly relationship with Redbird Athletics Hall of Famer and PGA Tour multiple winner D.A. Weibring, who is a fan of Perkins’ golf swing and putting stroke.
“D.A. watched ‘Perk’ putt and said: ‘Your putting stroke reminds me of Tiger Woods.’” Kralis said. “And D.A. doesn’t sugarcoat things or just come by to puff up our best player.”
A psychology major with a business administration/insurance minor, Perkins also excelled in the classroom earning 2020-2021 NCAA DI All-American Scholars honors. The award requires a low stroke average and a minimum cumulative career GPA of 3.2. It’s one more reason his former coach sees him as grounded and appreciative.
Perkins said he’s adjusting to being his own boss and not part of a team that he loved so much. He’s ready for the challenges ahead, thanks in part to his Redbird coach.
“Coach Kralis was a big help, especially when I battled self-doubt,” Perkins said. “He helped me become the player I’ve become.”
Kralis thinks playing at Illinois State will pay dividends of a different kind.
“He can play in all the conditions and on all the courses,” Kralis said. “One of the advantages of playing Midwest golf is that you learn to play in the cold and the wind and rain.”
Kralis added that Perkins was a great teammate in an individual sport, and he elevated the Redbird golf program.
“It’s been great to have the seat I had to watch him,” Kralis said. “He gave it his all and left it all on the course for us. He’s a Redbird for life.”