Thomas Boswell: Kenny Perry, 48, Makes a Feel-Good Run at Masters History

Kenny Perry mounts a charge on Friday to pull himself into a two-way tie for first with Chad Campbell as both sit at 9 under heading into the weekend.
By Thomas Boswell
Saturday, April 11, 2009

AUGUSTA, Ga. In Franklin, Ky., there's a modest public golf course, designed for mid-to-high handicappers on 142 acres where the costs are always kept affordable: $28 with a cart. The middle-aged fellow who sometimes works behind the counter there at Country Creek took out a $2.5 million loan years ago to build his town its only course.

Often as he rings up a greens fee, he's asked, "Do you know Kenny Perry?"

He is Kenny Perry.

This weekend, as Perry tries to win the Masters at age 48 -- two years older than the record holder, Jack Nicklaus -- his 85-year-old father will work behind the counter and keep track of his son's quest on a computer. Ken Sr., isn't coming here to Augusta National, because his wife, Mildred, 77, has multiple myeloma cancer.

Perry, whose 68-67--135 puts him in a tie with lumpy, likable Chad Campbell for the 36-hole lead here, was a competent PGA Tour journeyman for many years, a check casher, a friendly fellow with an untrustworthy putter and a homebody temperament that hamstrung his ambition.

Sometimes, one of his three kids would say, "Don't leave, Dad," and he wouldn't. The Masters, U.S. Open and British Open, the three greatest events in golf -- Perry skipped them, or didn't bother to qualify, more often than not. When he did tee it up in the majors, in 23 pro seasons, he had only two finishes in the top seven. There may never have been a finer player with a worse record in the glamour events.

In '96, he had the PGA Championship in hand, right in his home state of Kentucky, but bogeyed the final hole, then hashed up the first playoff hole gruesomely. Does it ever cross his mind? "A lot," is all he says.

Now, it's all good. The older his children got, the more attention he paid to golf. His fabulous gift for driving -- both long and straight despite an unorthodox upright swing -- never forsook him. "I think their swing is wrong and mine's right," he said. And with the years, his putting, his nerves and his golf guts improved dramatically. He never won $1 million in a season until he was 40, but has rolled up $14 million since.

Last season, his best ever, culminated when he was a hero of America's upset Ryder Cup victory, going 2-1-1 at Valhalla. Yes, right back home in Kentucky where he'd hashed up that PGA. He hugged his old dad for a long time. That was supposed to be it -- the valedictory, the happy ending for one of the Tour's best-liked, most generous men. Kenny, you can go back to restoring your Chevy muscle cars now.

But at an age when almost every golfer in history has incinerated his ambition, Perry finally discovered where his wick was hidden and lit it. A man who loved to compete, but never thought himself great, wants to leave a mark. And he just may do it.

"That was probably one of the greatest rounds I've ever played. I just didn't have any nerves. I was so comfortable out there," Perry said Friday after scorching Augusta National on a blustery day. "I don't know why. I don't know how to explain it. I don't know how I'll feel tomorrow or Sunday. But it was just easy.

"Everything is a bonus now [at 48]. I'm just going through each and every day enjoying life a little bit. . . . Don't get me wrong. I'm still burning inside, wanting to kick everybody's butt. . . . I understand what I'm trying to accomplish. Can I? I think I can. I really believe I can win this tournament. Will I? I don't know."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company