Despite playoff loss, Kenny Perry had a dream week

Monday April 13th, 2009
Perry made bogey on the second playoff hole to lose the tournament.
John Biever/SI

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Every night this week, 48-year-old Kenny Perry called his 85-year-old father back home in Franklin, Ky. Kenny's mom is ill, just out of the hospital after another stay in her continuing battle against cancer, so Dad stayed home with her instead of dogging his son around the Masters.

The conversation wasn't much different than when Perry was a kid and competing against his dad. "I'm gonna beat you 'til I die," Perry said his father, Ken, used to tell him, a rite of passage dad used to build his son's competitive toughness. The younger Perry still remembers the day he finally beat his father in golf when, one shot down on the final tee, he made a hole-in-one to win the match. "I let him hear about it," Kenny remembered.

This week, even though the son was on the Masters leaderboard, it was father-and-son talk as usual. "We talk every night, he critiques every shot on every hole," Kenny said. "'What were you thinking about on that hole? What's going on? I know you can hit it better than that.'"

Sunday night, after Perry lost a two-shot lead with two holes to play and then lost the Masters to Angel Cabrera on the second playoff hole, the phone call will have a different tone.

"I hope they're not too sad," Perry said of his parents. "I know my dad wanted me to win. I know him — he'll try to pump me up. We'll have a good conversation."

It wasn't just the Masters on the line this week for Perry. It was validation for a long and productive career, the realization of a dream. Because the American dream is Kenny Perry. Small-town kid makes good, rags to riches, Horatio Alger — all in one. It's the dream that promises anything is possible if you work hard, try hard, and are tough enough. Or as late NCAA basketball coach Jim Valvano commanded, "Don't give up, don't ever give up."

Perry didn't realize the last piece of his dream Sunday at Augusta National. He'd seemingly won the Masters with three birdies in four holes on the final nine, then handed over the green jacket with a nervous bogey-bogey finish. In a playoff with Chad Campbell and Angel Cabrera, Perry's suddenly shaky play continued. He made a poor swing and missed the green left at No. 10, the second playoff hole, and wasn't able to make a lengthy par-saving putt. Cabrera two-putted for par and the jacket.

Perry's gutsy, inspirational run was over.

"I didn't get it done," he said matter-of-factly.

After a surge in his 40s that's beginning to rival Vijay Singh's, Perry is the poster boy for late bloomers — Kentucky pride, patriotism and the torch carrier for senior citizens everywhere. Age is relative, and in golf, 48 is Social Security material compared to the young guns Perry's been beating. Rory McIlroy, 19, is two years younger than Kenny's youngest daughter.

The product of a nine-hole course that had only three bunkers, Perry didn't give up when he was a decent college golfer — though no world-beater — at Western Kentucky University, where he never won an event. That's right. The 13-time Tour winner and Ryder Cup hero never won a college tournament.

He didn't quit when he moved into his uncle's apartment in Florida in the 1980s and worked in the bag room at Bent Pines Golf Club, where he cleaned clubs and carts and did other odd jobs, scraping by on $800 a month. At least the gig came with benefits: He could play all the golf he wanted.

He didn't give up when he was just another mini-tour player with a funky swing, the result of a neck problem that forced him to pick up the club during his backswing instead of making a full turn, a hitch that became a blessing and made him a more consistent ballstriker. When people ask him why his swing looks different from those of today's young guns, he laughs, then jokes, "I think their swings are wrong."

By the mid-1980s, Perry had burned through the money his financial backers had given him, then borrowed more from the bank in order to keep chasing golf. He spent that, too. He had to borrow another $5,000 from an elder of his church in order to take one last shot at the PGA Tour's Q-school. The elder's only stipulation was that Perry promise to donate 5 percent of his future golf earnings to Lipscomb University, a Christian school. Sucker bet, good money as good as gone. Perry made the Tour that time, for good. He's since given more than $1.4 million to the school.

A promise is a promise, words that Perry lives by.

On Tour, he had streaks of spectacular iron play, as in his breakthrough win at the 1991 Memorial Tournament, which included a second-round 63. His short game and his putting were always so-so, but his ballstriking was so good, he became a reliable cash machine.

He won the 1994 New England Classic and the 1995 Bob Hope Classic. Then in 1996 came the opportunity of his life. The PGA Championship visited his beloved Kentucky, at the all-new Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville. It was a Cinderella week with a back-to-the-pumpkin ending. An early finisher on the last day, Perry spent more than 30 minutes in the CBS tower watching the other leaders complete their rounds. It was his first serious national TV exposure, but he stayed too long and didn't have time to warm up before his playoff with Mark Brooks. Perry butchered the opening playoff hole and lost the PGA, denying the Bluegrass State its finest golf hour.

"I still think about that," Perry admitted 13 years later. "It still stings. I've carried that a long time."

It could have been a career-killer. He could have retired to Franklin to run the nine-hole public course he eventually built. And he would have been happy. But he kept working, improved his game and became a force in golf. He's won 10 times since 2000, including at Colonial in 2003, the week Annika Sorenstam joined the boys.

He didn't quit in 2007 when he needed reconstructive knee surgery, another potential career-ender. The Ryder Cup was in sight, and it was going to be at Valhalla.

That was all the motivation he needed. He played only one round in a major championship last year, the first 18 at the PGA, where he withdrew after suffering a scratched cornea from a contact lens. He skipped the British Open in favor of the U.S. Bank Championship in Milwaukee. He had promised to return there, and a promise is a promise. He didn't win in Milwaukee, but he won three times in 2008.

You know the rest. He played his way onto the U.S. Ryder Cup team at age 47 and was a star. It could have been an emotionally overwhelming week, but Perry thrived on it. "I've never signed so many autographs in my life," he said after a pre-event practice round. "I felt like the whole state of Kentucky was out there today. I can't imagine what Tiger Woods puts up with all the time. For one week in my life, I feel like him."

Perry played like him, too. His leadership helped the Americans to a victory after three straight Ryder Cup embarrassments.

He must have felt Tiger-like for much of Sunday at Augusta National. Perry played some of his gutsiest golf until the very end. He nearly aced the par-3 16th hole, stiffing an iron to tap-in range when he held a one-shot edge over Chad Campbell. But he followed with two bogeys.

Perry's shaky finish, which included a skulled chip shot at the 71st hole, may overshadow his superb play for the first 70 holes. But it won't overshadow his career or his accomplishments. And he said he won't let it ruin his week.

"I'm not going to hang my head. I may not ever get this opportunity again, but I had a lot of fun being in the fight."

Ken Perry kept telling his son over the years that he needed to get one of those green jackets. Kenny came heartbreakingly close. He'll call his father Sunday night, and they'll talk about it. And they'll both be proud of each other, as always. That is the real American dream.

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