(AP) — Kenny Perry never took pity on himself for losing a two-shot lead with two holes to play in the Masters. Everyone else did that for him.
Among the first to call when Perry returned home to Kentucky were Greg Norman and Phil Mickelson, who know from experience what it’s like to lose a major. He also got a call from Scott Hoch, one of his best friends on tour, who 20 years ago missed a 3-foot putt that would have won the Masters.
Among the letters was one from former President George W. Bush.
“It was just incredible the outpouring of support,” Perry said. “I had so many people just proud of the way I handled the loss.”
Perry, who returns to the PGA Tour this week at the Zurich Classic in New Orleans, would have been the oldest major champion at 48. It could be that his popularity soars even more by the gracious way he handled his playoff defeat to Angel Cabrera.
He answered every question with brutal honestly. He didn’t make excuses. And he didn’t beat himself up.
The amount of fan mail he received was reminiscent of when Greg Norman blew a six-shot lead in the final round of the 1996 Masters. The Shark was revered for handling the loss, and was inundated with fan mail the following week.
“I received almost 600 e-mails. I received hundreds of cards and letters. People who genuinely cared,” Perry said in a conference call Tuesday from New Orleans. “And the letters all started out, ‘I’ve never written a letter like this, but I just felt compelled to write to you.’
“It’s been tough, and it’s been hard,” he said. “But the outpouring of fan support was mind-boggling to me. It really was very uplifting.”
Perry said he went over the final two holes during a reflective drive home to Kentucky, especially the chip that he bladed on the 17th hole, and even the three-putt par on the 13th hole.
He figures the turning point came during the walk from the 16th green to the 17th green, after a tap-in birdie to build a two-shot lead. Perry told himself he was two pars away from winning the Masters, instead of concentrating on only his next shot, which he had been doing the previous 70 holes.
“I stuck my neck out, thought I was going to win,” he said. “But I just came up a little bit short. As an athlete, or a player, that’s all you can ask of yourself.”
The emotions came from his family, particularly his oldest daughter. And he had a quiet chat with his 85-year-old father. But he didn’t shed any tears of his own, except when he was reading the letters.
“That was more emotional to me than me just sitting and reflecting on what went on, what was happening,” Perry said. “It was the outpouring of love and support from everybody that was really more emotional to me than anything.”
LEE’S ROAD: Some U.S. Amateur champions wait a full year before turning pro so they can take exemptions to the Masters, U.S. Open and British Open. Others turn pro immediately and try to earn enough money from seven exemptions to avoid Q-school.
Danny Lee is taking a different route, which might turn out to be the best route of all.
Lee remained an amateur so he could play in the Masters, then announced he was turning pro. He will make his debut this week at the Zurich Classic in New Orleans, one of seven sponsor exemptions the 18-year-old is allowed.
By turning pro now, Lee has plenty more opportunities.
He also will play the Memorial and AT&T National, which award exemptions to the U.S. Amateur champion even if he turns pro. Those will not count against the maximum seven sponsor exemptions. And while Lee gave up his spot in the U.S. Open, he is exempt into the final stage of qualifying the day after the Memorial.
If he gets into the U.S. Open, he will have 10 tournaments to earn $537,958 – the equivalent to 150th on the money list last year – to get special temporary membership and get all the exemptions he wants.
To earn his card, Lee will have to make the equivalent of 125th on the money list for 2009.
Unlike others who have tried before him, Lee has one other advantage. By winning the Johnnie Walker Classic on the European Tour in February, he is eligible for the $8.5 million Bridgestone Invitational, a World Golf Championship event that has no cut.
His other sponsor exemptions are for Quail Hollow, the Byron Nelson Championship and the Colonial, meaning he would have three left.
Meanwhile, Lee signed an endorsement contract Tuesday with Callaway Golf.
BIG GAME ANGEL: Angel Cabrera has not been the steadiest performer on the PGA Tour, but he sure shows up in the big events.
Over the past four years, the Argentine has only six top 10s on American soil, and his only two victories were the Masters and the U.S. Open two years ago at Oakmont.
He lost in the quarterfinals of the Accenture Match Play Championship in 2008. And in 2006, his only top 10s were fourth place in the Bridgestone Invitational, seventh place at the British Open and a tie for eighth at the Masters.
TEMPORARY MEMBERS: At least one European player has taken up special temporary membership on the PGA Tour.
Ross Fisher of England, who lost in the semifinals of the Accenture Match Play Championship, has earned $588,575 in tournaments sanctioned by the PGA Tour and now can take unlimited exemptions to try to finish the equivalent of the top 125 on the money list.
The more famous European, Rory McIlroy, has earned $588,691 but declined his offer of temporary membership. The 19-year-old from Northern Ireland plans to stick to a European Tour schedule this year.
McIlroy failed in his bid to become the youngest PGA Tour winner in history, but he had a strong showing during a pair of three-week stints in America. He made the cut in all six starts, and his tie for 58th at Hilton Head was the only time he failed to finish in the top 20.
DIVOTS: Phil Mickelson has finished ahead of Tiger Woods in all three tournaments they have played this year. … Former British Open champion Tom Lehman makes his Champions Tour debut this week by teaming with Bernhard Langer in the Liberty Mutual Legends of Golf in Savannah, Ga. … It took Woods nearly three years to return to the top of the PGA Tour’s standings for consecutive cuts made. Robert Allenby had been leading until missing the cut at Hilton Head. Woods’ streak is at 33 tournaments, which is all he has played since the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot.
STAT OF THE WEEK: Three of the past four winners at the Verizon Heritage did not play the previous week at the Masters.
FINAL WORD: “I turn 50 next year, so I’m doing stuff probably most people shouldn’t be doing. I’m very thankful for it.” — Kenny Perry.