The first thing you should know about Kenny Perry, co-leader of the Masters, is that he’s going to be OK no matter what happens. Perry really wants to win, of course. But he doesn’t need to win.
“Everything is a bonus now,” Perry said.
It would be very easy not to believe him. He’s 48 years old, and he has never won a major championship. He is eighth on the PGA Tour career earnings list, one of the most accomplished active players yet to taste victory in a major. He is Dan Marino, Karl Malone, Vladimir Guerrero – only the distinction in Perry’s sport may be worse because he has had the opportunity to play in many majors.
Which brings us to the second thing you should know: Kenny Perry did not play in a major last year even though he could have played in the U.S. Open and the British Open. He just had other priorities.
Which brings us to the third thing: Perry loves his native Kentucky. He loves the bluegrass so much that when he found out that the 2008 Ryder Cup was going to be played at Valhalla Country Club in Louisville, he decided to not play any majors and instead focus on winning smaller tournaments in an effort to boost his ranking and make the Ryder Cup team.
Perry’s plan worked. He won three tournaments and made the team. He would represent his country in front of his entire family and tons of longtime friends. This was way more important than getting another opportunity to win a major, which didn’t go over so well in traditional golf circles.
“I took a lot of heat from it,” Perry said.
Perry built up the Ryder Cup as the event that would define his career. He wouldn’t have had much of a career without the good people of the Commonwealth anyway, so it made sense to him. Perry, a native of Franklin, Ky., turned pro in 1982 but failed in his first two attempts to qualify for the PGA Tour at Q-school. In ’85, he wanted to make one last go of it, but he didn’t have the money to enter.
A local businessman, Ronnie Ferguson, lent Perry $5,000. (Yes, this is one of those stories.) Perry went to Q-school and earned his card. Instead of paying the loan back to Ferguson, he promised to donate 5 percent of his PGA Tour winnings to a scholarship fund at Ferguson’s alma mater, Lipscomb University. In the last 24 years, a lot of kids have gone to college with Perry’s help.
Perry and his wife, Sandy, still live in Franklin, where they’re members of the same church as Ferguson. Perry’s roots are firmly planted.
“Any chance he gets,” said Lindsey Perry, his 21-year-old daughter, “he talks about being from Kentucky, how proud he is.”
Perry wanted to give something back at the Ryder Cup. He put immense pressure on himself to deliver.
“I was throwing it out there and I was going for broke,” Perry said. “I was either going to hit a home run or I was going to get thrown out.”
Perry played what was then the best golf of his career that week in September. He finished it off by beating Henrik Stenson on the final day, one of seven American victories that brought the cup back to the United States for the first time in nine years.
“I still get goosebumps,” Perry said.
Because of Perry’s defining moment at the Ryder Cup, he showed up at Augusta National this week without any baggage. He got what he needed most at Valhalla.
“I think the public looks at you and says you need to win a major,” Perry said. “But for me, where I came from … 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.”