By Steve Eubanks, PGA.com
BENTON HARBOR, Mich. -- Just follow the crowd. One of the most popular pairings in this year’s Senior PGA Championship will be easy to spot as there will be no shortage of gallery members swarming around the first tee at 8:10 on Thursday.
Fred Couples will be there, always a fan favorite, as will scrappy everyman (and former PGA Champion) Jeff Sluman. But the emotional favorite, every golf aficionado’s sentimental brother in arms, and the man who achieved more success and became more popular after age 40 than any player in modern history, will be the third member of the group: Kenny Perry.
Even in the pro-ams, Perry brings out the passion in people. A woman watching golf with her husband on Tuesday couldn’t help but yell, “We love you, Kenny!” as he walked past.
Even those who don’t profess their love can’t help but like Perry. He is one of the few 30-year veterans who hasn’t made an enemy. Even Henrik Stenson, whom Perry inadvertently called “Henry” the entire time he was thumping the Swede 3&2 in the 2008 Ryder Cup, breaks into a smile when talking about the big man from Kentucky.
“He is always very friendly, and a solid player,” Stenson said.
Part of Perry’s charm is his everyman persona. When a group showed up once at the Kenny Perry Country Creek Golf Course in Franklin, Ky., where you can still play 18 quality holes of golf with a cart for $30 ($25 if you’re a senior or junior), they didn’t recognize Perry behind the counter. As he took their money and sold them a hot dog, one of the men said, “How’s Kenny playing this week?”
Perry smiled and said, “He’s playing pretty good.”
“I built Country Creek for people to enjoy the game,” Perry said. “I wanted to make it friendly and build it so that everybody could play it – juniors, seniors, beginners or good players: I want everybody who comes out to have a good time.”
Country Creek is an extension of Perry’s personality: unpretentious, welcoming, confident and comfortable. It’s no accident that when Rory McIlroy played in his first Masters, his Wednesday practice round was with Perry, a man who hit the ball high and long like McIlroy, but who also had gobs of experience he was ready and willing to share with a rookie.
And it was no accident when Perry threatened one of golf’s most sentimental records in 2009, bogeying Augusta National’s last two holes to fall into a playoff with Miguel Angel Cabrera and Chad Campbell, and then losing the Masters to Cabrera on the second extra hole. Had he pulled it off, Perry would have been golf’s oldest major champion, nipping 1968 PGA Championship winner Julius Boros by four months.
Still, he is the most successful post-40 professional in history with 11 PGA Tour wins after his 40th birthday. He is also the oldest player in the top-10 all-time leading money winners. But he loves the fact that he can still slip in and out of fame by simply taking off his hat.
At a Five Guys in Orlando during the Arnold Palmer Invitational a few years ago, a fan approached him and asked, “Are you with the tournament?”
Perry said he was, but when the guy asked him what he did, he said, “I’m a caddy.”
“Oh, really, who do you caddy for.”
“Kenny Perry,” Perry said.
He won’t go unrecognized in Benton Harbor this week. Of all the tournaments that remain on his schedule, the Senior PGA Championship is the one Perry wants to win more than any other.
“I would love to win the Senior PGA,” Perry said on The Golf Channel. “The PGA has always had a big passion in my heart. I would have loved to have won the PGA Championship at Valhalla when I lost in a playoff to Mark Brooks. Being a golf course owner, the PGA and the club pros are the backbone of America. They work and they slave and they teach the game of golf and promote the game of golf. I’ve always been in that direction. The Senior PGA, that’s the direction I’d love to go if it was to happen.”
Harbor Shores might be the spot. “I love Jack Nicklaus golf courses,” Perry said. “Muirfield Village is one of my favorites of all time – it’s where I broke out and got my start, and every time I see Jack I give him a hug and thank him for that golf course.”
Valhalla, where Perry has so much history, is also a Nicklaus design. “The (2008) Ryder Cup was probably the highest of highs I ever had in golf,” he said. “Then to lose the 1996 PGA to Mark Brooks was probably the lowest of lows for me.”
But Perry never gets too low, and he never stays low for very long. It’s an attitude rooted in his strong Christian faith, and the perspective he has gained from being one of golf’s late bloomers.
After failing to earn his PGA Tour card in his first two attempts, Perry was ready to hang it up and get a job, but a local businessman gave him the money for a third shot. The money was a gift, not a loan, but it came with one condition: the man asked Perry to donate five percent of all his future tour earnings to Lipscomb University, a Christian school in Nashville. Thirty years later, Lipscomb has received more than $1.5 million from Perry and his wife.
“When you give back, that’s the best thing, much better than the wins,” Perry said. “Our goal was that if any kid in Simpson County, Kentucky, wanted a Christian education, it would be taken care of; money wouldn’t be an issue.”
Lipscomb costs about $34,000 a year. So far, every high school graduate from Simpson County who has been accepted has gone to Lipscomb University because of Kenny Perry.
“It is such a neat blessing to be able to do that,” Perry said. “We are, truly, blessed.”
The rest of us are blessed as well for nothing more than knowing him and rooting for him.