After Friday's brutal winds at Augusta National, Perry and Campbell lead a pack of veteran contenders

Saturday April 11th, 2009

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Doctor Jekyll, meet Mister Hyde. Augusta National on Thursday, meet Augusta National on Friday.

You knew the red numbers that made Thursday's scorecards look like AIG's annual statement weren't going to happen again Friday. That just wouldn't be like the National, which is flat-out the hardest darned great course in the world. The difference was the wind. Friday morning broke sunny and clear with a pleasant breeze, but those nice little breezes took steroids later in the morning and turned into strong, swirling winds, gusting upwards of 25 miles per hour.

The course can be somewhat vulnerable (but not easy, not ever) with soft greens and no wind. With wind like we had Friday, it was a battle. The course was playing two full shots harder than the first round at one point during the afternoon before easing up to a little more than a shot and a half harder by the end of the day.

Someone asked Tiger Woods if the wind was difficult. "Yeah," he said without smiling, making it clear he'd just been asked the golfing equivalent of, Is General Motors having a bad year? "You might say that."

Woods never got anything going in Friday's wind, but he still parred his way onto the first page of the leaderboard before bogeying the 18th hole for a second straight day. His finish was better than Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy, who was four under par and in contention until he doubled 16 and disastrously tripled 18, but Woods was undoubtedly every bit as hot after his round. A concise Woods, two under par after a round of 72 and seven shots off the lead, had little to say. "Conditions were tough," he said. "It was just tough all around."

Anthony Kim might beg to differ. He made an astounding 11 birdies, a Masters record, during the worst wind in the afternoon and shot 65. In a way, that tells you how hard the course really played. To shoot seven-under 65, he needed to make 11 birdies.

"I really don't know what happened," said Kim, who rallied from an opening 75. "The putter got hot. When the putter is hot, nothing really gets in your way."

Woods, meanwhile, is hardly out of it. Seven shots over 36 holes on a dangerous course like the National is easily within reason. Do-able, he was asked? "Yeah," he said expansively. Then he went to the range and spent more than an hour hitting drivers while his coach, Hank Haney, watched.

There is an extenuating circumstance here for those waiting for Tiger's expected (but so far missing) charge. His name is Kenny Perry. The man from Franklin, Ky., added a no-bogey, routine 67 to his first-round 68 to tie Chad Campbell for the lead at nine under par. They're both former Ryder Cuppers and both known to be streaky players. Campbell actually had the 36-hole lead here in '06 but fell back on Sunday, when a rain delay forced him to play 32 of the final 36 holes.

Others near the lead include a veteran group of former major champions: Angel Cabrera (-8), Todd Hamilton (-6), Jim Furyk (-4), Phil Mickelson, Geoff Ogilvy and Vijay Sing (-3). And, of course, Woods. Sergio Garcia, widely considered the best player never to have won a major, is also in the thick of things at four under.

But Perry is officially the new man to watch at the Masters. Campbell is a formidable player who nearly won the 2003 PGA Championship, but Perry is a hot player who stays hot once he gets hot. For weeks on end.

Perry is driving it great. He's hitting his irons great. He's putting great. His short game, featuring the 64-degree sand wedge he put in his bag at Doral, is suddenly great. He's making the game easy and playing stress-free golf, and he's doing it at big, bad Augusta National. The only thing he's not doing great, he said, is reading the greens. Possibly because he didn't play here last year, or in any of the other majors. (He played one round at the PGA, actually, but then had to withdraw due to a scratched cornea.)

At 48, Perry is playing some of the best golf of his life. He starred in his home state at the Ryder Cup last year, the biggest week of his life. After succeeding under that kind of pressure, Perry may not break a sweat again in a major championship. He's already won this year, at the FBR Open, and he didn't make a bogey Friday. It was nearly flawless golf.

"It's been an awesome, very relaxed two days," Perry said. "I missed two shots today. How many times can you say you missed two shots? That was probably one of the greatest rounds I've ever played, to be honest. I just didn't have any nerves. I don't know why. But it was just easy. I had a confidence in my head."

This is a Cinderella story in the making. Perry grew up playing a nine-hole golf course in Kentucky, borrowed money to pursue professional golf, and has enjoyed a long and very successful career with a swing that is hardly a classic. (For more on Perry, see Alan Shipnuck's Sports Illustrated profile.) He's not a shotmaker, but he's a high-ball hitter who works every shot from right to left, which happens to be the most frequently needed shot at the National.

In short, there's a good chance this guy isn't going to go away, like many second-round major championship leaders do.

Perry caught some heat last year when he didn't try to qualify for the U.S. Open and skipped the British Open in favor of playing in Milwaukee, the better to prepare himself for the Ryder Cup. It paid off, and he was a Ryder Cup hero, but that doesn't mean he wouldn't like to add a major to his resume. If he pulls it off at his age, he would surpass Jack Nicklaus as the oldest Masters champ. (Jack was 46 when he won in 1986.)

"I put it all on the line that week, being at home," Perry said, recalling the matches at Valhalla. "I was going for broke at the Ryder Cup. I was either going to hit a home run, or I was going to get thrown out, and it went my way. It was one of the greatest three days of ballstriking in my life. Very similar to the way I'm hitting it here."

As a reward, Perry and his 85-year-old father, Ken, are going to serve as grand marshals for the Kentucky Derby next month, riding in the Thursday parade before watching the races on Friday and Saturday. "It's going to be a fun week with Dad," Perry said. "Hopefully, I can wear the green jacket while I'm doing all that."

He was joking, of course, but his comment tells you about his confidence level. He is one of the game's best drivers of the ball, which is significant because driving has never been at a bigger premium at the National than it is now.

There could be a little extra incentive, too. His mother, Mildred, has been battling cancer for some time and just got out of the hospital again. "The medicine really keeps her beat down," Perry said. Even if Kenny looks poised to win here this week, his father probably won't leave her to attend on Sunday.

"Nothing in my career, any of my 13 wins, compared to what I experienced that week with my family, my dad," Perry said of the Ryder Cup. "But Dad has always said, 'You need to win that green jacket.' He calls me and tells me that."

Perry laughed. He was in a good place Friday afternoon. By Sunday, it might be even more special.

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