DUBLIN, Ohio — Kenny Perry’s thank you list just keeps getting longer, and he is grateful for his success.
Let’s start with Jack Nicklaus. Perry was sitting at a Presidents Cup team dinner with Nicklaus, the captain, and his wife, Barbara, when Perry said, “Thank you for Muirfield!” It was honest emotion. “I just blurted it out,” Perry said.
Well, thanks again, Jack, because Perry won here Sunday for the third time. Perry, the reigning celebrity of little Franklin, Ky., played a near-flawless final round at Muirfield Village Golf Club and won the Memorial Tournament by two strokes. In 1991, Perry earned the first victory of his PGA Tour career here. This is his third Memorial title — some guy named Tiger Woods also owns that many — and at 47, Perry surpassed Tom Watson as the tournament’s oldest winner.
Don’t forget Paul Azinger. The current Ryder Cup captain talked earlier in the week about who he was looking for to make his team. Perry wants it badly. The Ryder Cup will be held in September at Valhalla Golf Club in his home state of Kentucky. He has felt the pressure all year long, but that hasn’t stopped him from playing well. Perry was in contention at the Players and lost the AT&T in a playoff. That’s what made his finish this weekend so important. He shot 69 on what may have been the toughest setup in Memorial Tournament history, and the victory moved him to fifth place on the Ryder Cup points list.
“When Azinger said in the paper that the guys on his team are going to have to win tournaments, that really changed my thinking,” Perry said. “To get it done with your back against the wall, this may be my greatest round. I still look back at the Sunday round I shot here in 1991 to win my first event, that was pretty huge. Today, I just had an unbelievable calmness.”
Perry’s finishing kick was impressive. “It should at least open Paul’s eyes a little bit,” he told the crowd around the 18th green during the awards ceremony.
That comment earned him a big cheer.
Don’t forget Valhalla and the 1996 PGA Championship. Perry and fellow Kentuckian Russ Cochran were loudly in contention during the final round. Perry finished early and spent 30 minutes in the CBS television booth watching the leaders come in, chatting with Jim Nantz and Ken Venturi and enjoying his first real national exposure. He ended up in a playoff with Mark Brooks, didn’t have time to hit a single warm-up ball and lost the playoff on the first hole after hitting an errant drive. Was it a tactical error? Probably. What hurt worse was losing the first major championship ever played in his home state and disappointing his friends and supporters.
“The PGA made me stronger, it made me better,” Perry said. “I’ve always said you let it bother you so much that it can get in your head and make you fail, or it can make you stronger. I was just not going to let that beat me. I was determined to get out there and win golf tournaments.
“And now I hope to get back there. I feel like that place owes me a little something. I feel like I can be a big part of that team and score some points.”
Finally, there was his recent stretch of good play and bad luck. He played his way into contention at the Players and looked like the man to beat. Then he shot 81 on Sunday. At the AT&T in Atlanta, his second shot on the first playoff hole caromed off a tree and ricocheted back into a lake. It cost him the tournament.
“I could stand there with a million balls and never hit that tree and have it go back into the water to lose,” Perry said. “Then to come here and play perfect golf on Sunday and win the tournament. But I knew I was playing great. For whatever reason, I love this place. If I retire, I need to build a house on this course.”
Maybe the folks in Memphis should thank Perry. He’s going to play there this week, his sixth tournament in a row. He isn’t going to Torrey Pines and the U.S. Open, and he isn’t playing in Open qualifying. “I’ve got to go to Memphis,” he said, smiling. “Dad’s always told me, ‘Ride that train when it’s hot, keep chasing it, don’t go home.'”
Next stop: Memphis.