For a 28-year-old, the Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville has done a lot of living and seen a lot of history.
There was a memorable 2008 Ryder Cup, which produced a rare U.S. victory. Kenny Perry, a native Kentuckian and the sentimental inspiration for the American side, beat Henrik Stenson in a key singles match on Sunday. “My dad, in his bib overalls, came onto the green and gave me a big hug,” Perry recalls. “He said it was one of the greatest moments I could have ever given him. I’ll never forget that.”
There was also Valhalla’s debut on the big stage, the 1996 PGA Championship in which favorite son Perry lost in a playoff to Mark Brooks. And there was another PGA Championship you may remember, the 2000 edition, when Tiger Woods and Bob May staged a shootout to rival one at the O.K. Corral, which Woods won in a three-hole playoff.
Call it Valhalla’s Triple Crown and, not coincidentally, Perry played a key role in two of them. Well, the PGA Championship returns to Valhalla this August and holding a major championship there without Perry would be like having a reunion of Alamo defenders and not bothering to invite Davy Crockett. After all, Perry, 53, was the reigning sheriff of the Champions tour, having won the last three senior majors heading into the 75th edition of the Senior PGA Championship.
Perry hoped to make it four in a row last week at the Golf Club at Harbor Shores in Benton Harbor, Mich.—would that have been the Kenny Slam? The trophy instead went instead to Scotland’s familiar Ryder Cup warhorse, Colin Montgomerie, who delivered one of his finest rounds and held off a hard-charging Tom Watson, who matched Montgomerie’s closing 65 and came within a stroke of shooting his age. Since the Senior PGA champ also earns a berth in the PGA Championship field, that meant Perry, who lives in little Franklin, Ky., and operates a small public golf course that he built, was out of luck.
Or was he? Perry finished 13th, 10 shots behind Montgomerie, and when he came out of the scoring area on Sunday, he was met by PGA of America president Ted Bishop, who offered him a special exemption into the PGA field. An emotional Perry immediately told him, “I’ve got to have a hug.” Bishop said PGA of America officials decided three months ago to offer the spot to Perry if he didn’t win the automatic berth. The first tip-off came when Bishop congratulated the golfer after his third-round 66 and asked if he was going to be around on Monday. When Perry answered yes, Bishop said, “Make sure you’ve got a cellphone with you.”
So Perry had more than an inkling an exemption might be in the works, but he was still understandably excited and appreciative. “I’m just blown away,” he said on Sunday. “I wanted to get back to Valhalla because I had probably my worst defeat and my greatest victory there, from the loss at the ’96 PGA to the Ryder Cup with Paul Azinger, that was a phenomenal week. I’m going to play a major that week and shake a lot of hands of people who supported me. It’s a good way for me to exit.”
Now, in Monty and Perry, the 2014 PGA Championship field will feature the two over-50 golfers who arguably rank as the modern game’s Best Players Who Never Won a Major. They could have, and both men will tell you they should have, won multiple majors. Monty lost the 1994 U.S. Open and the ’95 PGA in playoffs and has been an Open runner-up two other times. Perry had his Valhalla moment, but the one that stung every bit as much, if not more, was the 2009 Masters, where he coughed up a three-shot lead with six holes left before losing in a playoff to Angel Cabrera.
This PGA may be the last major championship either man plays. “It will be very exciting at first,” Perry says, “but the longer the week goes, the sadder it will get because I know it’s all coming to an end.”
Neither man intends for the event to be a ceremonial appearance, however. “If I can drive the ball as well as I did here, hit my iron shots as well as I did here and hole out as well as I did here, who says I don’t have a chance?” says Montgomerie, who won by four shots at Harbor Shores.
Says Perry, “If everything lines up correctly, I think I have a chance to win. I belong on the Champions tour, but yeah, I can compete out there from time to time and, yeah, I think I can win.”
No argument from us, gentlemen. In fact, let’s give them their due respect and change that previous designation to this: The Best Players Who Never Won a Major . . . So Far.