AKRON, Ohio (AP) — For more than two decades, no one ever paid much attention to Kenny Perry unless he happened to be holding the trophy at the end of the week. Few players have won 12 times and nearly $26 million so quietly.
But there is no avoiding the attention now.
Perry has won three times in his last six starts, with two other top 10s. What brought him as many headlines, however, was his decision to skip the British Open and stick to his original road map that would lead him to the Ryder Cup in his native Kentucky.
He was vilified for turning his back on a chance to win a major, and even some of his fellow Americans privately expressed disdain that Perry would duck the best players in the world. More amazing than a 47-year-old making the Ryder Cup team is that Perry has done this without having played in three majors or two World Golf Championships.
But instead of the spotlight causing him to cower, it has emboldened him.
“I’ve always run from it, to tell you the truth,” Perry said Wednesday at the Bridgestone Invitational. “I’ve always been trying to hide from attention. But this year, for some reason, I feel like I can prove a point. It may not happen. I may fall flat on my face that week. It may be too much pressure, too much burden that I can’t handle it. I don’t know.
“But I’m still going to enjoy it.”
In his new role as a maverick, Perry is among the favorites at Firestone when the $8 million WGC event begins on Thursday with 80 players from around the world who qualified by winning select tournaments, being among the top 50 in the world or having played in the most recent Ryder Cup or Presidents Cup team.
It will be the first significant event at Firestone without Tiger Woods since 1996, when he was winning his third straight U.S. Amateur. Woods is the three-time defending champion at the Bridgestone Invitational, where he has won six times.
“Everybody will just move up one place from where they finished in the past,” Stewart Cink said of Woods’ absence as the world’s No. 1 player recovers from season-ending knee surgery.
Padraig Harrington will be making his first start since winning the British Open at Royal Birkdale. Phil Mickelson, who won at Firestone in 1996 when it was the World Series of Golf, is energized about the final two months of the season.
Perry is considered among the favorites, and for good reason.
A streaky player his entire career, his fortunes began turning with a fluke loss in Atlanta, when his fairway metal to the 18th green on the TPC Sugarloaf ricocheted off a tree, across the green and into the water during a playoff.
“I didn’t get too down on it because I knew my game was coming back to where I was getting competitive again,” he said.
Two weeks later, he won the Memorial. Four weeks later, he won the Buick Open. And then he made it two straight victories when he won the John Deere Classic.
The buzz with Perry turned out to be the tournament he didn’t play.
“Kenny Perry is his own guy,” Cink said. “He didn’t want to go to the British, so he didn’t go. In a way, you have to admire that. He didn’t back down and change his schedule. But who knows how many more chances Kenny is going to have to win the British Open?”
Through all criticism, Perry has found some comedy.
“In 22 years, nobody has ever cared where I played golf,” Perry said with a laugh.
The difficult part now is paying attention to the five tournaments he plays before the Ryder Cup. It starts with the Bridgestone Invitational, on a South Course at Firestone that is much tamer than last year.
Instead of rough up to the ankles, which caused shots to squirt sideways and left only one player under par, the rough is a moderate 3 inches and rain has softened the fairways and greens.
Perry has never won a WGC event, although he came close three years ago when he had a two-shot lead over Woods at the turn, only to bogey five out of six holes and tie for sixth.
“I got the fist pumps put on me,” Perry said.
These days, he is getting more than just fists. Perry has relished in the reaction from some of the players who are trying to capture the potion that has enabled him to win so much this summer. They are touching him for luck, even rubbing his golf clubs.
“It’s just been magical to have it fall together the way it did,” Perry said.
The most meaningful praise has come from Ryder Cup captain Paul Azinger, one of the few who had no qualms with Perry skipping the British Open to play in Milwaukee.
“He’s in a great place in his life,” Azinger said Wednesday. “He’s second on the money list, he has a chance to win the FedEx Cup, he’s playing in the Ryder Cup. Most guys who get to this age are having a mid-life crisis. He could win the money title.”
Perry has digested all the criticism over the last month about his British Open absence and turned it into motivation that he hopes will last through the Ryder Cup.
“I love stuff like that,” he said. “I love when people tell me I can’t do something, because I’m going to prove you wrong. I’m kind of a low-key, easygoing guy, and I need stuff like that. When I get something burning in my belly a little bit, it just inspires me to work a little bit hard. And at my age, I need that.”