Perry Gets His Game Back

Perry Gets His Game Back

Dublin, Ohio — The most significant development from the Memorial Tournament (automatically excluding anything Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson did or said) might’ve been the resurrection of Kenny Perry.

You remember Perry. He’s the guy who secretly won at Colonial the week Annika Sorenstam got all the attention for teeing it up with the men. He’s won the Memorial Tournament twice, he has nine PGA Tour titles, he’s known for building and operating his own public golf course in his hometown of Franklin, Ky., and he’s universally acclaimed as one of the tour’s nicest guys.

The problem is, Perry had lost his game. He didn’t have a top-10 finish last year, something that had never happened in his 20 years on the tour. In 14 starts this year, he had one top-25 finish, along with eight missed cuts and two withdrawals. Things have been so bad, the 46-year-old Perry admitted, that he was thinking about quitting the tour.

“It was to the point where I didn’t enjoy it,” Perry said. “I told Freddy, my caddy, the best we can do is barely make the cut on the number. I could scratch out a few cuts but I never could be competitive, and I’ve always said if I can’t be competitive, I’m not going to play. What’s the point?”

Perry is competitive again. He completed a startling turnaround on the weekend at Muirfield Village, shooting 67-63 — just two shots off the tournament record for low back-to-back rounds of 128, set by Tiger Woods in 2000. Perry tied for third and was in position to challenge the eventual winner, K.J. Choi, for the title until Perry bogeyed the 71st hole. For a man who’s been struggling for the better part of two years, though, Perry wanted to remain cautious about his progress.

“Well, one week doesn’t mean anything,” he said after Sunday’s finish. “It means I had it this week. If I can somehow sustain it and carry it through Hartford and the rest of the year, we’ll see.”

What sets golf apart from most other sports is a player’s ability to dramatically change his level of play — for the better (like Boo Weekley) or for the worse (Chip Beck and David Duval come to mind). Perry’s problems began after his knee was scoped last spring. Because he was favoring his knee, his swing changed and he went from hitting his usual high draws to low shots that started out left and then hooked.

“That was ugly; you can’t play those,” Perry said. “They felt terrible. No matter what I tried, I couldn’t make the club do what I needed it to do.”

Perry went back to basics with his teachers, Ron Gring and Matt Killen, a disciple of Gring’s who is the best friend of Perry’s son. In fact, Perry coached Killen in Little League long before Killen, in his early 20s, became Perry’s golf guru. They were making slow progress. Then Perry played a practice round Tuesday afternoon with Tommy Armour III at Muirfield Village.

“I started chewing on his ear on the first tee on number 10,” Perry said. “I said, you’re a veteran, you’ve seen my swing. In the middle of the 11th fairway, he threw three balls down and said, here, you’ll figure it out in about three swings.”

Armour’s brilliant advice was something so basic that you’ll probably laugh: Keep your head still.

“I understand the club is underneath me and I’ve got to have the club coming straight down,” Perry said. “Tommy said, your head is moving way off the ball and you’re really rotating your body off the ball. Just keep your head still. It was something as simple as that. As soon as I started posting my head up and swinging around my head, I quit laying the club underneath me and the club started coming down on the correct path and I started hitting it like I used to hit it.

“This knee thing had me so screwed up. It was giving way and allowing my body to over-rotate to the right. As soon as I firmed it up and kept my head still, I started hitting quality shots. The knee just created a lot of bad habits that I’m trying to recover from.”

The Memorial was the eighth straight tournament Perry had played. He was encouraged to keep going by Fred Saunders, his longtime caddie and pal.

“I’d play three or four holes well, then lose the feel of the swing and start hitting those shots left again,” Perry said. “Fred said, one day it’ll kick in and you’ll play 18 holes well, and Saturday, it did. It’s a relief to hit some quality shots again.”

On the weekend, Perry hit 26 of 28 fairways, 27 of 36 greens and made 14 birdies and one eagle. His tie for third was worth $348,000.

“Tommy gave me the greatest tip,” Perry said. “It was a blessing. Old Tommy, whenever I see him, I owe him dinner or a bottle of wine or something. From where I was two months ago to where I am now — it’s been very uplifting.”

Perfect games
When Steve Stricker and Peter Lonard missed the cut at the Memorial, the list of players with perfect records at Muirfield Village got a little shorter. (Stricker had made eight straight cuts; Lonard had made seven.) Here’s the updated list of the players who have never missed a Memorial cut (and have played a minimum of eight Memorials):

Ernie Els, 14 of 14 cuts made; Jim Furyk, 12 of 12; David Duval, 10 of 10; Johnny Miller, 10 of 10; Tiger Woods, 10 of 10.

The graduate
When does a week off pay off? When you land a great gig. Billy Poore, who caddies for Paul Azinger, had a few blank spots on his schedule. He knew Azinger was going to skip the last few events on the West Coast, and he wasn’t going to play at Colonial because that was the week his youngest daughter, Josie, graduated from high school.

During the West Coast break, Poore hooked up with Denis Watson, who was trying to come back from a series of surgeries and get his senior golf career up and running. They meshed well, and when Poore mentioned that he was available the week of Colonial, Watson invited him to carry his bag at the Senior PGA Championship at Kiawah Island.

You know the rest. Watson was the Cinderella feel-good story of that week, coming from behind to beat Eduardo Romero and earn his first victory in 23 years. It was a nice payday for Poore, who came out of retirement last year to rejoin Azinger. He was on Azinger’s bag for the last half of the 1980s and was there for seven of Azinger’s wins.

“I called Billy last year after Charlotte,” Azinger recalled, “and said, William, I cashed in my top 50 all-time money exemption this year and I’m not the player I once was, but I’m not playing terrible. Would you help me keep my card this year? You’re the best caddie I ever had. I want to bring you out of retirement. Are you interested? Billy said, ‘Uh, when are you playing next?’ ”

Poore had barely walked off the final green at the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island, the site of Watson’s victory, before he got messages on his cell phone from Azinger and Mark Calcavecchia.

“I knew Denis had a really good chance to win that one; he was playing great,” Poore said. “He’s such a great ballstriker. I knew if he kept his head on, he could do it.”

Azinger was obviously thrilled for his friend, except for one thing. “Now I can’t use Billy as an excuse for how I’m playing.”

Azinger, on his Ryder Cup captaincy opposite Nick Faldo, his former TV announcing comrade: “It’s not going to be the bloodbath everybody was hoping for when they first announced it.”

Charley Hoffman, who missed hitting Tiger Woods by about three feet when he had to replay a shot: “If you can’t beat him, take him out.”

Aaron Baddeley, 25, on his earliest memory of Jack Nicklaus as a golfer: “I guess it was when he made like a 10 at the British Open and got stuck in Hell Bunker at the Old Course. That’s a good first memory, isn’t it?”