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Honorable Approach

By Thomas Boswell
Monday, April 13, 2009

AUGUSTA, Ga.

Anybody can win. Almost nobody ever loses with the dignity, maturity and wisdom that Kenny Perry brought to his defeat here on Easter Sunday at the Masters. It was his finest hour. He just doesn't know it yet. But he will.

The world knows what it has seen. Oh, maybe not instantly. The digestion process takes a while. But eventually the truth about this day will sink in. At 48, Perry tried to become the oldest man to win a major golf championship. Despite a career that has rarely dared to rise above "good," and has never remotely approached "great," he has spent the last decade learning to believe that, deep inside himself, he has resources and abilities that he never grasped, appreciated or developed when he was young.

And this week, right up until the very last, he believed he could win the Masters. In the cruel vernacular of games, Perry blew this tournament. After taking a two-stroke lead to the 71st tee, he finished bogey-bogey, hitting some alarmingly poor shots, to fall into a playoff, which he lost, with another bogey, on the second extra hole to Angel Cabrera.

But afterward, without trying, simply by being himself, Perry showed both the best of himself and, in some sense, the best in sports. Perry showed that a completely committed effort, especially in pursuit of things we have been told exceed our reach, sometimes transcends results. Or, at least, rivals them.

Thirteen years ago, Perry came to the 72nd hole of the PGA Championship, made bogey, then hashed up the playoff. On Saturday evening, he talked openly about seeking a kind of golf redemption in this Masters. "I wish I could redo that one," he said. "The 72nd hole is the one that cost me that tournament, not the playoff. You know, that stings. That one is still with me today. I've carried that a long time."

On Sunday, he did almost the same thing. Instead of a redo, he got a replay. At the 72nd hole, just like Valhalla in '96, he hit a drive that he thought was excellent, except that his adrenalin gave the ball extra juice. Both times he ended up in trouble, this time in a fairway bunker. So, both times, after the swing that he thought had sealed the deal, he discovered that he'd lost. Imagine how deeply that must burn. Yet Perry faced it, conceded its truth and talked about it in detail as his wife, his three children and a new son-in-law listened just 10 yards away.

"I've got two to think about now," he said. "I was young at Valhalla . Here, I thought I had enough. I thought I had enough experience. I thought I had enough to hang in there, I really did. . . .

"I have a lot of memories. It just seems like when I get down to those deals, I can't seem to execute. Great players make it happen and your average players don't. And so that's the way it is," Perry said, adding a few minutes later that, "Angel got it done. This is the second major championship that he's won. I've blown two. The only two I've had chances of winning."

Hard as it may seem to believe, the reason Perry could be so brutally honest about himself was because he was, simultaneously, still so proud of himself. For 70 holes, he played the best golf of his life and became the folk hero of this Masters. The poor Kentucky boy who was raised, and still lives in Franklin, a town of 8,079, proved how he had, 16 months from his 50th birthday, risen to the 11th-ranked player in the world.

"I'll look back the rest of my life saying what could have been. But I'm not going to go there. Because if this is the worst thing that happens in my life, my life's pretty good," said Perry, who was down to his last penny 24 years ago when his church lent him $5,000 to keep chasing his golf dream. Since then, improving at a brutally slow rate, but always trending upward, he has won 13 PGA Tour events, $28 million and built a scholarship fund for that generous tiny-town church that now sits at $1.4 million.

"I got my mom struggling with cancer. My dad [85 years old] is struggling. I got a lot of people who are hurting now. And here I am playing golf for a living and having the time of my life," said Perry, who was adored by the crowd all weekend.

Perry came closest to losing his composure when asked about his parents back home. "I hope they are not too sad, but I'm not going there," said Perry, looking like he wanted to cry and probably would [and not for just a little while either] before the night was over. Yet he held together far better in defeat than he did merely trying to win.

"I'm not going to play pity person. And you know what? I'm going to enjoy it. I really am. I fought hard and I was proud of the way I hung in there," he said. "Our game is tough. It's a mental game that plays a lot with your head."

Perhaps none of golf's famous collapses -- and, yes, galling as it may be, this will be included as one of them -- has ever been triggered when a player hit the shot of his life.

But that befell Perry.

At the 16th hole, he drilled his eight-iron shot less than a foot from the hole for a tap-in birdie and two-shot lead. "I looked like Gary Player. I hit it and took off after it because I knew I hit it perfect and the crowd was going to go crazy. I lost my hearing on a few holes they were screaming so loud."

Perverse as it may seem, that near-hole-in-one may have, in some way, unhinged him. The moment was worthy of a Tiger Woods or Arnold Palmer. For the first time all day, Perry responded to the crowd, broke his calm focused concentration and enjoyed the chants of his name, of Kentucky slogans.

After that, the golf gods owned him. Let's hope that's not a metaphor for something -- like life. Let's pretend not. Perry hit the trees with his tee shot at the 17th, got a lucky bounce back to the fairway, but missed the green from 180 yards. Then he skulled a chip shot, leading to bogey. At the 18th, he hit that Valhalla II drive. "It was right down the middle," he said. "I didn't even realize that it got in the bunker until I got up there."

His shot from the bunker was a hooked horror. But, after a chip, he still had a 15-foot par putt to win the Masters -- the moment of a lifetime. Don't say, "Not up not in."

"I had that putt on 18 that I've seen Tiger make, I've seen so many people make that putt. I knew exactly what it was. I hit it too easy. You've got to give that putt a run," said Perry. "I mean, how many chances do you have to win the Masters?"

In Perry's case, presumably just one. And at 48. "I will probably have some heart aches tonight," he said. "I got my family here. We'll have a good time tonight. We'll talk a lot about it. It's been a special week and I'll never forget it."

This is how you face the music. This is how you make the point that your best really is your best and therefore, always, a source of enormous pride, no matter the outcome.

"It's neat to get in the moment and get in the heat and say: 'You know what, I was there. I did it. I was good enough to win, but I didn't win."

Golf is good at providing gallant losers, including Rocco Mediate last year at the U.S. Open against Tiger Woods, and Greg Norman after a handful of heartbreaks in the majors. But no one, in recent decades, has come so close to such an unlikely prize, failed so painfully, and yet come away proud and intact.

We may wish we could look away. But Perry, so rightly proud of what he almost did, should be honored to look squarely at the memories he left here this week.

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