- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 11, 2003

OLYMPIA FIELDS, Ill. — The last two major championships have taught us that sometimes it’s better to slip into a Slam without a favorite’s fanfare.

Rich Beem wasn’t on anyone’s short list at last year’s PGA Championship although he had won the preceding week’s International. And irrespective of his early-season success, Canadian Mike Weir had to be considered a Masters long shot at the big hitter’s haven known as Augusta National.

In a golf world that seems obsessed with identifying Tiger Woods’ top rival perhaps it’s easier to perform when you aren’t considered even part of the equation.

Enter Kenny Perry.

There’s no doubt that the 42-year-old from tiny Franklin, Ky., is the hottest player on the planet. He rolls into this week’s 103rd U.S. Open off back-to-back victories after torching the field at the Colonial (19 under) and Memorial (13 under), two of the tour’s most prestigious events.

If Ernie, Phil, Sergio or Davis had managed the feat, Tiger might not be this week’s favorite. But Perry isn’t first-name familiar. He’s considered a career rank-and-filer, not a potential rival.

“I’ve kind of flown under the radar out here for 17 years,” Perry said Tuesday. “I’ve had a good career, nothing fantastic. … I don’t know what buttons I pushed to all of a sudden shoot the numbers I was shooting. I’ve had success at Colonial and Muirfield Village before, but it all fell together for me for those two weeks.”

And now that those two weeks are over, the golf world expects Kenny Perry to go back to being, well, Kenny Perry. It expects him to once again play like the nice guy who has only six victories and no majors on his resume. In fact, Perry’s only major memory is a somewhat sour one.

On the verge of becoming the home state hero at the 1996 PGA Championship at Valhalla in Louisville, Perry accommodated CBS by going on air while lone challenger Mark Brooks was finishing his round. While Perry chatted with Jim Nantz instead of heading to the range or putting green, Brooks birdied Valhalla’s par-5, 18th hole to force a playoff. Perry and Brooks returned to the 18th tee. Perry bunkered his drive. Brooks made birdie. And Brooks walked away with the Wanamaker Trophy, while Perry left Louisville with only an earful of criticism.

“I thought I did what was correct for me at the time,” said Perry, whose best finish in an Open is tied for 25th in 1993. “A lot of people didn’t think I did, but I did.”

Why? Because Perry’s first impulse has always been generosity, both with his time and his money. This is a guy who was so moved when his pastor gave him $5,000 in 1986 to pay for one last shot at Q-School, that he agreed to pay the church back by donating 5 percent of every check he made to David Lipscomb, a Church of Christ university near his home. And he didn’t stop at $5,000.

“We’ve had 13 kids from my county who have received scholarships to go to that school,” said Perry. “It’s getting close to $600,000 in a trust fund for those kids.”

That figure gives you some indication as to how consistently Perry has played the game over the years. But he’s never had a year like this one.

“Honestly, most guys out here were surprised it didn’t happen sooner,” said Scott Hoch of Perry’s success. “He’s always bombed it off the tee and hit a ton of greens. You always knew if he ever started putting, he’d win with regularity. He really is that good.”

But he still isn’t that heralded. Some folks dismiss him for his unconventional swing. Corporate sponsors and television cameras certainly aren’t drawn to his considerable gut or jowly visage. And Open pundits don’t expect a thing from a gray hair at golf’s most grueling major.

That could be both a media mistake, and a blessing for Perry. Unlike Els or Love, or any other top-10 player expected to make a run at Olympia Fields this week, there is absolutely no pressure on Perry, internal or external.

“I need to enjoy this because it may not happen to me again,” said Perry of his late bloom. “I’m 42 — been out here 17 years. I’ve just been enjoying these last few years of my career, because I don’t know how long I can last out here.

“I’m going to enjoy [the Open] this year. My attitude has been if I play well, that’s a bonus. If I don’t, that’s OK, too. That’s been my outlook. … That’s what I did those last two weeks.”

And that’s what Weir, and particularly Beem, did at the last two majors. Like that pair, Perry has a hot hand and a free run at this major. He can free-wheel it around Olympia Fields with virtual impunity from media scrutiny. Maybe he will fade back into the field. But maybe he’s this decade’s Mark O’Meara, a fortysomething veteran who suddenly discovers the majors recipe.

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