FOX CHAPEL, Pa. — Timing is everything. As Kenny Perry holed the final putt of the Constellation Senior Players Championship, a tour official stood by the 18th green waiting to blow the warning siren to alert spectators that a rogue thunderstorm was about to hit the Fox Chapel Golf Club like a blitzing Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker.
The moment Perry's par putt hit the bottom of the cup, the official fired off the horn. So obviously, it was a good call by tour officials to move Sunday's final round up as early as possible. The leaders went off at 9:40 a.m. and finished with only minutes to spare before heavy sky rumbling and lightning flashes began and yet another batch of thundershowers arrived. It was a good week to build an ark, a tough week to hold a golf tournament. But it's in the books.
Perry won, ending a victory drought of 16 months and reasserting himself as the most likely king of the hill on the Champions Tour. Fred Couples and Duffy Waldorf tied for second and Colin Montgomerie, making his senior debut, tied for ninth.
As for good timing, Perry needed this win, his first senior circuit major title. He'd just kicked away the Senior PGA Championship on the final nine last month at Bellerive in St. Louis and, of course, still has bittersweet memories of losing the Masters and the PGA Championship. It's a little hard to believe, given his ability, that the personable Perry, from Franklin, Ky., somehow had never won a major title. Well, now he has.
"I thought I was snakebit," Perry said. "I messed up down the homestretch at Bellerive and I lost that Masters and PGA in playoffs. There was so much heartbreak. I remember what Phil said at Merion when he was talking about the U.S. Open and he said, All I feel is heartbreak. I feel your pain, Phil."
The fact that Perry still talks about those major losses tells you they haven't faded far into his memory bank.
"Bellerive wasn't as big as the other two," Perry said. "That was a big course that set up perfectly for me. I just fell apart the last day. I lost my rhythm and lost shots right, then I hit a couple shots long. Today, my word was patience. I geared back."
Because the Fox Chapel course, a classic Seth Raynor design, was so soft after a week of on-again, off-again rain, it was difficult for players to control the spin on their approach shots. Perry adjusted his game plan to the conditions and tried to hit longer clubs into the greens, using three-quarter swings to take some of the backspin off the ball. It paid off. While Couples and Waldorf mostly lost the backspin battle all day, Perry kept hitting it close.
"I hit a lot of shots I wasn't comfortable with today," Perry said. "I was hitting 110-yard pitching wedges and a lot of three-quarter swings. I wasn't comfortable with them but they turned out well."
Thanks to Perry, the Senior Players will have a nice highlight video. There was a 20-foot birdie putt at the 11th hole that he stroked a bit too hard. Luckily, it poured in the center of the cup and went down because it would've trundled well past. "That was a bonus," admitted Perry, who took home $405,000 for winning.
He missed a pair of six-footers for birdie at 14 and 15 but at 16, he spun back a wedge to two inches for a breathe-in birdie, then nestled a 6-iron shot to three feet at the par-3 17th, Fox Chapel's famous Biarritz green with a swale crossing its midsection. The 17th was missing some of its teeth Sunday as it played 187 yards, well short of the regular 231-yard tee marker. And Perry owns this hole. Last year in Sunday's round, with the same tee and a similar pin location, he made a hole-in-one. This time, he dropped his 6-iron shot to two feet for birdie to keep a two-shot edge over Couples, who had hit a nice shot to six feet and made a clutch birdie to stay temporarily within striking distance.
Couples and Waldorf reached the par-5 18th green in two but Couples had a long, curvy eagle putt that he stroked to five feet. His birdie try lipped out, however, and Perry, who had played to just in front of the green in two, putted to five feet, missed his birdie and tapped in for par and the win.
"The last nine was like a dog race," Perry said. "I said yesterday it was going to take a low score to win. Those are the best three rounds I've put together in a senior tournament 63, 63, 64. I knew I had to make birdies today. And when you don't make a bogey on the weekend in a major, you've got a good chance. I hit it beautifully today."
One man's timely win is another man's heartbreak. This time, Couples was on the short end of some bad luck and poor putting. Fred has two issues. One, it's unlikely his back troubles are going to let him wake up and feel good for four straight days of tournament play. For another, he gets erratic on putts inside five feet. Both problems showed up on the weekend. Couples finished off a rain-delayed 62 Saturday morning in the second round in which he'd been seven under par through 11 holes the previous day. He just didn't seem to have it Saturday afternoon until a late flurry of birdies reinserted him into the mix.
Sunday, he couldn't make much happen. At least, nothing good.
For serious bad luck, take the eighth hole … please. Fred's approach flew slightly long. It might have spun back and been all right … except it hit a sprinkler head, caromed high and in the air and zoomed over the green, leaving him a short par-3 back to the hole. Even in the face of misfortune, Fred is still the coolest man in golf. He watched the crazy outcome, barely held up his hand to waist level, palm up, in the classic "What the heck?" pose and slightly shook his head. That bad bounced turned into a bogey.
That was hardly a death blow. Not with ten holes left. In fact, he poured in a lengthy birdie putt on the next hole and offered a mock smile, as if to indicate, "Sure, now it goes in."
The final nine was a three-man race after Waldorf scorched the front nine for 29 and took a one-shot edge.
At the 10th, Fred wedged close to a back pin but watched his ball yo-yo back, catch and slope and stop 30 feet away. He had to sink an eight-footer to save par.
He nearly drove the green at the par-4 12th, pitched it five feet past and stroked a weak putt that drifted off the cup's right edge. He bombed a drive over the trees and the corner at 13, a left-to-right dogleg, and spun another approach shot back to some 40 feet.
He finally did make a four-footer for birdie at the 14th, tying for the lead when Perry missed his own four-footer for birdie. The 15th began Fred's demise. It's a downhill par 4 to a creek, then slightly back uphill to a sharply sloped green. Waldorf spun his shot off the false front, 20 yards back down the fairway and made the bogey that dropped him back. Fred hit a nice shot to eight feet, Perry spun a wedge off slope behind the pin to five feet. Couples tried to pound hit birdie putt in but hammered to too hard. The ball burned the edge of the cup and rolled three feet past. Perry then played too much break and missed his birdie putt on the left. Then Fred lipped out his par putt.
Perry had a one-shot lead and you know the rest. He stuffed it tight for birdies on the next two holes to close out his opponents. It was a nice way to justify after all the TV air-time he scored Friday. At Fox Chapel? Nope. He scored preferred seats at PNC Park right behind home plate to watch the Pittsburgh Pirates beat the Milwaukee Brewers in a Friday night baseball game. His cell phone kept ringing from friends who called to say they saw him on the telecast. The game was shown nationally by Fox Sports and his seat, just off to the side of home plate, had him in the background on nearly every pitch.
"I enjoyed the game," Perry said. "Boy, the Pirates infield must be the best defense in the league. That Jordy (Mercer) and (Neil) Walker kid, they turned some great double plays. It was good to get away from golf and relax. I had a great time."
This week, Perry will make a return appearance on the PGA Tour. Because he has an endorsement deal with the Greenbrier Resort, he'll play in this week's Greenbrier Classic in White Sulfur Springs, W. Va. He made the cut last year but he isn't approaching the PGA Tour with any lofty expectations.
"I've already smelled all the roses there," Perry said with a grin. "I'm not too worried about my results."
He knows his future is on the Champions Tour and he's finally got his first major. The next two senior events, the Senior British Open and the Senior U.S. Open, are also majors.
"I'm hoping the floodgates have opened," Perry said.
For once, his timing was off. After a week of rain, some of it heavy, he could've chosen a word other than "floodgates."