TURNBERRY, Scotland (AP) — Kenny Perry wants to make one thing clear: He’s got nothing against the British Open.
The 48-year-old American is back at golf’s oldest major championship after skipping it last year, a scheduling decision he made early on because he felt it gave him the best chance to play for the U.S. Ryder Cup team in his native Kentucky.
While everything went according to plan – Perry made the team and helped the Americans rout the Europeans at Valhalla – his decision to skip the Open sparked plenty of debate.
“I think people just didn’t understand,” Perry said Tuesday after a practice round at Turnberry. “If the Ryder Cup would have been somewhere else, I would probably have come over here. But being in my home state, it really kind of changed my focus and desire, what I wanted at that point in time in my life.
“I figure, here I am 48 years old, that was my last opportunity probably to play in a Ryder Cup, plus being in my home state in front of my home folks, it was just a big opportunity to me. And that’s the reason why I didn’t come over here last year.”
Perry has never felt especially comfortable playing links golf, but changes in technology have made it easier for him to adapt. He’s finished among the top 16 three times – including a tie for eighth at Royal St. George’s in 2003 – in five Open appearances.
But his main focus last year was qualifying for the Ryder Cup team. It’s hard to argue with the results: three wins and more than $4.6 million in earnings, his best year ever on the PGA Tour. Most important, he got to celebrate at Valhalla, where he had squandered a lead on the 72nd hole of the 1996 PGA Championship and wound up losing to Mark Brooks in a playoff.
“The people in Kentucky and my home state, that’s what they remembered me for,” Perry said. “And my goal was to get back there and be an effective player to where my home thought of me differently as a player. It worked perfectly, my plan of winning three times, went to the Ryder Cup, played great. And now they don’t even think about Valhalla, the PGA Championship anymore. They always think about the Ryder Cup.”
Perry carried his strong play into 2009, contending again for his first major title at the Masters. He led by two strokes with two holes to play, only to bogey them both and fall into a three-way playoff. He lost to Angel Cabrera on the second extra hole.
Afterward, he talked candidly of choking away his chance to become golf’s oldest major champion. Now, he’s a little easier on himself.
“It gave me a lot more confidence,” Perry said. “I went in there with a game plan. I just took a different strategy to Augusta. I went in there early, a week before early, played a lot of golf there. I really charted the golf course well, kind of figured out how I wanted to play the strength of my game to play that golf, kind of set up that golf course, and I played it to perfection.”
Until the end.
“I got too big a lead too fast there at the very end,” Perry said. “Instead of playing aggressive like I’d been playing all week, I got kind of conservative on the last two holes and it cost me. It was a good lesson.”
Perry bounced back to win the Travelers Championship three weeks ago – his 13th win in a career that didn’t take off until he was in his 40s. He’ll turn 49 next month, and he’s fourth in the world rankings.
“Not too many can say they’re 49 and fourth in the world,” Perry said. “It’s pretty neat. It’s just taken me a long time to get there. I wish I was in my mid-20s now and was fourth in the world, because my mentality, I’ve changed so much in 20 years out there.
“It’s just taken me a long time to figure it out, to be comfortable, relaxed, enjoy the people and the crowds and the traveling. It’s just taken me a long time to get to where I really enjoy the game again. To me, it was a job in the ’90s and early2000s. Now, it’s become fun. I’ve enjoyed it.”
He’s looking forward to playing his first British Open since 2006, even though a howling rain swept over the course during the last few holes of Tuesday’s practice round.
“I tell everybody it’s like playing on the moon, because it’s so different to me,” Perry said. “But I always enjoy coming over. The fans are great. I have a good time with it. And my game has gotten better. If I can figure out a way to get in contention on Sunday, if I played well and could get in contention, yeah, I don’t think I’ll back down. I think I’ll be ready to go.”
He played his practice round with a foursome that included 24-year-old Anthony Kim, who’s just a few months older than Perry’s son – and caddie – Justin.
“He’s a hoot. He’s such a kid,” Perry said of Kim. “I was just aggravating him the whole day out there. I kind of take the young kids and aggravate them. But it’s a lot of fun to me just to hang out with them.”
And still show them a thing or two.