- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 11, 2009

AUGUSTA, Ga. | It took five years of knocking around the PGA Tour for Kenny Perry to even qualify for the Masters, eight to make the cut (and another eight to make it a second time). The tournament was much fussier about who it invited in the 1980s and ‘90s. If you hadn’t won an event in the previous 12 months — and not just any old event, either — you probably weren’t going to get asked.

Perry socked away plenty of money in those days, but he managed just three titles before his 40th birthday. By that age, of course, most golfers are starting to wind down, starting to ponder life on the Champions Tour. Most golfers, but not Kenny. Kenny, amazingly, was just getting warmed up.

Maybe it’s because, as he says, “It means a lot more to me [to be out on the tour] because of where I’ve come from and where I’ve been able to go and how much success I’ve been able to have. To come from a nine-hole course in the middle of nowhere… I didn’t have swing coaches. I didn’t have this entourage. I didn’t have anything. I was borrowing money, begging, doing whatever I could, scratching and clawing to get out here.”

Kenny Perry, graduate of a nine-hole golf course in Franklin, Ky., has since won 10 tournaments in his 40s, more than any player in PGA Tour history except Vijay Singh (22) and Sam Snead (17). During these same golden years, he’s played in his first two Ryder Cups, his first two Presidents Cups… and now finds himself, at 48, sharing the halfway lead of 9 under at Augusta National — another first for him.

In case you’re curious, Perry is two years older than Jack Nicklaus was when he won the ‘86 Masters. He’s even older, by a few months, than the oldest major champion, Julius Boros, was when he won the ‘68 PGA. Still, the only thing surprising about Kenny being atop the leader board is that it’s at Augusta, which has generally mystified him. He has missed the cut five of eight times here and never finished higher than a tie for 12th.

In Thursday’s first round, though, he positioned himself nicely with a 68, and Friday he put up a bogey-free 67 in windier conditions that he called “probably one of the greatest rounds I’ve ever played.” Afterward he told his caddie, Freddie Sanders, that he only missed two shots, “a sand wedge on the eighth hole and a 9-iron on 16. How many times can you say you missed two shots?”

If Perry sounds a trifle pumped, well, he is. Despite his late fame, after all, he still hasn’t added a major to his list of conquests. His most notable victories have been three Memorials, a Colonial and a win at Bay Hill.

“I really believe I can win this tournament,” he said. “I’m driving it beautifully. I’ve put this new driver in play, and I told my caddie, ‘I think I can win a U.S. Open with this driver because I’m driving it so straight.’

“I’ve probably lost five to seven yards in distance, but it’s given me a lot of confidence in straightness. I probably missed three fairways this whole week, at the most, and I hit 15 greens [Thursday] and 16 [Friday]. My iron game is really good. I just need to figure out a way to read these greens a little better. I hit it really close on 13 and 14 [in the second round] and missed [the putts].”

Driving has always been Perry’s forte. You know the 18th hole at Augusta, where trees pinch the fairway and it looks like, as Greg Norman put it, “you’ve got to drive it up a gnat’s [behind]”? Well, Kenny is the kind of guy who can drive it up a gnat’s behind time after time. No driver is more feared by gnats than his.

It has been quite a story, this second act of Kenny Perry’s. In fact, Jim Furyk, was talking about it earlier this week. Sometimes, he said, a player will start playing better in his 40s because his kids are grown up and out of the house, enabling him to “refocus [on] his game.”

That’s certainly been the case with Perry. His older daughter, Lesslye, got married last November, and his son Justin has graduated from college. That leaves only Lindsey, who’s a junior at SMU.

“Once the kids left, [wife] Sandy and I started traveling [together to tournaments] and I started hitting more golf balls,” he said. “When they were little, they’d tell me not to leave, stay home. That was tough, as a dad. Now they’re all here with me this week. I’ve got my son-in-law here. We rented a big house. We’re having a great time.”

Perry doesn’t strike you as the kind of player who would still be tearing it up at 48, still be posting five top 10s in nine events this year and winning the FBR Open. He doesn’t work out, he readily admits, and doesn’t watch his diet either. But for some reason, he said, a smile crossing his face, “It’s working.”

Then, too, “technology has helped us [older players],” he said. “I think the golf ball goes a long way now — and the driver [also levels the playing field]. And physically, I’ve always been real good. I don’t think I’ve lost anything from my mid-20s to now. I feel just as strong and feel like I hit it just as far. [Plus] I’ve got more experience than these young guys.”

To truly understand the Perry Phenomenon, though, perhaps we need to go back to the beginning, to his father Ken, an insurance salesman, showing him no mercy in whatever game they played — golf, cards, a board game, you name it. His dad “used to beat me so bad,” Kenny said. “I cried all the time — and he would laugh in my face as he was doing it. He was a smart man. He was just trying to toughen me up. I still loved him. It was a very loving household.”

Which doesn’t mean the son still doesn’t want to please the father. Last year Perry helped the United States regain the Ryder Cup in his home state, winning 2½ points for his team at Valhalla in Louisville, Ky. When it was over, the two shared a hug.

“The Ryder Cup, I can’t express to y’all how much that meant to me,” he said. “To me, that was the ultimate of anything I have ever been a part of or accomplished. None of [my 13 tour wins] meant anything compared to what I experienced that week with my family, my dad.”

A pause.

“But Dad has always said, ‘You need to win that green jacket.’ He always calls and tells me.”

And so Kenny Perry will try, once more, to defy the march of time.

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