At 53, Kenny Perry is as happy as he's ever been. His three kids are grown, his daughter recently married, and he has two grandchildren. The 27-year PGA Tour veteran splits time between the PGA and Champions tours, which he calls "a big vacation" for him and his wife, Sandy. Perry has two more big reasons to be in high spirits: the Senior Players and the U.S. Senior Open, the two Champions Tour majors he won back-to-back last summer. The titles secured him a spot in this month's Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass and next month's U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2.
Last year's play notwithstanding, Perry still yearns for a major win on the PGA Tour. Such an historic victory, along with his 14 PGA Tour titles and Champions Tour success, would likely punch his ticket to the World Golf Hall of Fame. (Not to mention his almost $32 million in career earnings, 14th all-time and $23 million ahead of Jack Nicklaus.) Charming yet fiercely competitive — Perry is only half joking when he says, "I want to kill at Words with Friends" — the humble Kentuckian sat down with Golf Magazine to reflect on his recent run, his near miss at the Masters, and why 2014 is his last, best shot at major glory.
Congratulations — you're coming off quite a 2013, with back-to-back major championship wins on the Champions Tour. Has your achievement fully sunk in yet?
Both of those wins were spectacular. I was shooting 63s and 64s on very difficult courses. But that's kind of been my career. I'm very streaky. I'm thankful it's been a long career, and very rewarding. "A two-time major winner" — it's great to hear. People said, "You've never won a major," but now I've won two majors. I finally walked through the door.
After the close calls on the regular Tour, it must be very satisfying. Your perseverance paid off.
Well, it took me 30 years to do it. To have so many setbacks in my career — golf is all about losing. You don't win that much. I've played in 660 Tour events, I believe, and I won 14 times. Golf has been a great and rewarding career, but it's been full of disappointments. More lows than highs.
Two of those lows were the 1996 PGA Championship and the 2009 Masters.
I had a chance to win the 1996 PGA [Championship] in Valhalla, in my home state of Kentucky, in Louisville. I had a one-shot lead with one hole to play, and then I bogeyed the last hole and lost in a playoff to Mark Brooks. Pretty devastating. That was very disappointing. And then in 2009, I had a two-shot lead in the Masters with two to play, bogeyed the last two holes and lost in a playoff. So you start to think you're snake-bit. You think it's not going to happen for you. Don't get me wrong — I've had a great career. I'm very appreciative of it. But to get so close — I had one arm in the green jacket, and I could not put it on.
On a scale from 0 to 10, how much does winning a senior major fill that void?
It helps. I would say that it's probably like an 8. It put a Band-Aid on it, let's put it that way [laughs]. As a kid growing up, the Masters was the tournament I dreamed of winning. To be so close and then to not make it happen…I had that deal won! I had it.
People point to your skulled chip on No. 17 that led to a bogey as the pivotal moment at the 2009 Masters. Do you agree?
No, it was the tee shot on 17. All week, my goal was to be conservatively aggressive, only going for the pins that I thought I could get at. And I was putting beautifully. All of the sudden, I hit it to within an inch on 16 on Sunday. I tap it in for birdie, I look over at the leaderboard, and I'm like, "Oh man, I've got a two-shot lead." And I went from being conservatively aggressive to conservative.
What does the pressure feel like when you're leading the Masters late on Sunday?
My body froze up, my mind froze up, and instead of swinging at the ball, I started steering the ball. My thought was, "All you gotta do is make two pars to win the Masters." On 17, I blocked the tee shot right and it went into the trees, but I got lucky — it hit a tree and bounced out into the fairway. The trouble was, I was 200 yards away from the hole, and all week I'd only had 140 yards in. I had been hitting 9-iron or pitching wedge into that green, but now I had to hit a 6-iron. I hit a pretty shot, it hit right by the pin, but it went over the green. Chipping has always been my weakness. I was nervous, the club got out ahead of me, and I skulled it over the green. And the second chip was even harder! But I got it up and down [for bogey] and still had a one-shot lead.
Your 18th holes at the '96 PGA and the '09 Masters were almost mirror images of each other.
Yes. I hooked a drive on the 18th at Valhalla in 1996 into trouble and made bogey. I hooked my tee shot on the 18th at the Masters into that bunker and couldn't get it on the green. [That bunker] is deep, and I hit it out of the bunker left and then chipped it long. But you know what, I had the putt that I saw Mark O'Meara make to win. I was pinhigh right, about 20 feet away. I knew the break, I knew the putt, and I've seen that putt made to win the Masters. And I hit the worst putt of my life. I hit it easy, and I pulled it. It looked like I lagged it up there. And the rest was history.
After you and Chad Campbell lost the Masters playoff to Angel Cabrera, you received more than 700 sympathy letters. Do any stand out?
The one that stuck out the most was, "My two boys are sitting here watching you in your interview, and you were so gracious in defeat, and I want my two boys to grow up like you." That took a lot of the hurt away. It's all about who you are, what you stand for. If losing the Masters is the worst thing that ever happens to me, I've got a pretty good life. My kids cried more than I did.
You've won almost $32 million. How many of those millions would you forfeit for a major title?
Well, I would trade it all away for one major, and I would make more money. That's the way it is. By losing [the Masters], that was probably a $20 million loss for me, from endorsements, outings. Everything is magnified. Everything quadruples when you're a major winner. I got to No. 4 in the world. I couldn't catch Tiger, but when you're top five and you're winning majors, it's mind-boggling what's out there. So, I would trade it all because I would make more in the long run [laughs].
Do you feel you could still win on the PGA Tour?
I do, very much so, under the right conditions and the right circumstances. It doesn't need to be one of the big power-golf courses. I can still hit it 300 yards, but those guys now hit it 330, 340, 350. But as I've gotten older, I've found that I don't hit my irons as high as I used to. To be competitive on the PGA Tour, you gotta come in outta the air; it's gotta be high, soft and spinny. If I can catch a course where it's rained a little bit and the greens are soft and my putter's on — there are still enough courses out there that don't beat you up, lengthwise. It would have to be the perfect storm, but I feel I can still win.
You've played on two Ryder Cup teams. One got whipped, in 2004, and one did the whipping, in 2008, in your home state. Which is more intense: losing or winning?
Nothing compares to the high of winning, of popping that champagne. Here's the whole deal with me: I put all my eggs in one basket, approaching Paul Azinger [in 2008], trying to get on that team. I was in Atlanta, playing, and I lost in a playoff, and in the paper the next day, Paul says, "The guys who make my Ryder Cup team are gonna have to win." I could have been devastated, but that was motivational. I won three tournaments that summer to get on his team. I was outside the top 100. I had to win tournaments, and I had a fabulous summer, kind of like the summer I had [in 2013].
Do you credit Paul Azinger for motivating you?
I do. He motivated me. I had a lot of motivation anyway, because I wanted people in Kentucky to remember me for my Ryder Cup win. I didn't want them to remember me for my 1996 loss there at Valhalla. It was very big for me. That [Ryder Cup] was the most pressure I've ever felt.
The Ryder Cup pressure didn't bother you in Sunday Singles, when you beat Henrik Stenson.
I birdied five of the first six holes. We're on the seventh tee, and Henrik says, "You're going to make it hard on me today, aren't you?" He has that Swedish accent, and it was hilarious. I looked at him and just thought, "Man, I got this guy." I believed in my heart this was going to be my day. He'd had a great season, he's a great match-play player, and he played phenomenal. But I was so determined. I was making putts all over the place. I looked like Ben Crenshaw out there. And I can't putt a lick!
You and Jim Furyk made a great team as well in alternate-shot play in 2008.
Paul player-profiled all 12 of us. He put us in pods. And in my pod was Boo Weekley and J.B. Holmes, which is three rednecks. But then I got Jim Furyk, and he's from Pittsburgh! I'm like, "Uh, he don't fit in our pod. We'll teach him how to say 'y'all' and all that good stuff" [laughs]. I wanted to play with J.B., but Paul said, "I don't want you two carrying the load of Kentucky out there for your country, because if you two go down in flames, it's going to deflate everybody."
Why has the U.S. Ryder Cup team struggled since then, losing in 2010 and 2012?
I don't know. Our kids are just as good as they are. I look at the Presidents Cup team, and I feel like that team is just as strong as the European team, and we have no trouble in the Presidents Cup. But in the Ryder Cup, we're in our heads.
The World Golf Hall of Fame has decided not to induct a 2014 class. What do you think of that?
I'm totally upset with them because I think Mark O'Meara should be in. Fred Couples gets in with one major, 15 wins. Mark O'Meara has two majors, 16 wins, and a U.S. Amateur [win]. He's got a better résumé than Fred. Is it political? Why is Mark not in the Hall of Fame? He should have gone in before Fred Couples. Everybody loves Freddie, I'm a big fan of Freddie, but look at the numbers. Who has more wins? I like what Ray Floyd said: They're getting lax.
You and Vijay Singh are close friends. You're kind of an odd couple, don't you think — a prickly Fijian and a good ol' boy from Kentucky?
I enjoy practicing with him and playing against him. I have a lot of respect for him, and he treats me with respect. Vijay has been burned so many times by the media that he's put a shield up. But he lets his guard down around me. I love his laugh. He likes to shoot zingers at you, but I fire 'em back.
What kind of zingers does he shoot?
At Bay Hill in 2005, we're gonna be in the last group together. We're in the bathroom washing our hands before the round, and he goes, "I'm gonna beat you bad today," and puts that big grin on me. I said, "You just go for it." We're tied coming down the last hole [a par 4 with rocks and water fronting the green]. Well, he hits the rocks and goes in the water. I fire it on the green, two-putt and win. But I'll never forget that. "Gonna beat you bad."
Since you have one cleat in both tours this year, here's a hypothetical: If the 10 best Champions Tour players took on the 10 best Tour players on a shorter course, which side wins?
I would love that! I would want a Ryder Cup format. I would love to see Hale Irwin dust Tiger Woods [laughs]. Hale is 68 and still shooting his age with no problem — amazing. The young guys have an edge, but in my heart, I think we could beat 'em. I do. We've got Freddie, Bernhard Langer, Tom Lehman. Heck, we might win because there'd be no pressure on us — you'd expect us to lose. Of course, this match would never happen because it would be a total embarrassment if we beat 'em. But it sure would be fun.
You racked up 11 of your 14 Tour wins after turning 40. Why were you one of the first guys to hit his prime in his forties?
Everybody used to think you were done at 35, and now it's 45. A lot of it is equipment. And I think the ball brought us all together. The ball does not curve nearly as much. I used to hit a sweeping hook. I only hit a little 10-yard draw now. It's funny, it's the same golf swing, and yet I can't hook it like I used to.
What are your hopes and goals moving forward? Are you the retiring type?
I just want to enjoy the game. I used to be so focused, always down the fairway, never looked at galleries, never looked around. And now I catch myself looking at people, or just saying hi. It's about enjoying the success I've achieved, enjoying walking the fairways every day. Just the joy of life. Life's too short to be miserable, so enjoy the ride.