How more ironic, or appropriate, a place for Kenny Perry to punctuate a career that includes 14 PGA Tour victories, six Champions Tour titles and $32 million in on-course earnings than at the same course, Valhalla Golf Club, and same event in his home state that easily could have knocked him spiraling into golf oblivion almost two decades ago? And what better day to celebrate his final round in a major championship than Aug. 10, his 54th birthday?
“It’s definitely the perfect way to go out,” said Perry, generally regarded as the best golfer ever produced by the Bluegrass State. “It’s been the site of one of my biggest heartaches and also some of my most exciting memories.”
Perry already has slain some of the ghosts of Valhalla. From the depths of painful defeat at the 1996 PGA Championship, he bounced back to play the best golf of his life, claiming 11 of his PGA Tour titles, including a second Memorial, and taking a leading role in a U.S. victory in the 2008 Ryder Cup at Valhalla.
Although he’s won three Senior (Champions Tour) majors, Perry admits he’ll never totally shake the sting of Valhalla in 1996—or the playoff loss to Angel Cabrera at the 2009 Masters, where Perry relinquished a two-stroke lead with bogeys on the two final holes of regulation play. “Winning Senior majors helps put the disappointment away. But you can never fully make up for not winning the PGA and Masters,” Perry said. “That’s okay. I gave it my best, and I couldn’t be prouder with what I have accomplished as a boy from a small town in Kentucky.”
Perry could have spent the last 18 years reliving his Valhalla nightmare—lamenting his bogey on the par-5 18th, which allowed eventual winner Mark Brooks to force a playoff. Instead, he responded with the best golf of his career, giving the PGA of America good reason for granting him a special exemption to say goodbye in front of fans in his home state. His likely farewell to major championship golf will be one of the hottest stories at the tournament.
Twelve years after losing the playoff to Brooks, Perry, then 48, earned a spot on the U.S. Ryder Cup team and punctuated a redeeming weekend at Valhalla with a victory over Sweden’s Henrik Stenson in Sunday’s singles matches.
Though he’s had enough of the weekly grind of the PGA Tour, Perry now enjoys the comforts of the 50-and-over Champions Tour, where through June he ranked fifth on the 2014 money list. He was Champions Player of the Year in 2013, his best day coming June 30 when he overtook Fred Couples in the final round to win the Champions Tour’s Players Championship, his first Senior major title, while son Justin, a realtor in Bowling Green, was winning the club championship at Olde Stone. He captured his second Senior major victory two weeks later at the U.S. Open at Omaha (Nebraska) Country Club. His third Senior major title came this spring in the Regions Tradition at Shoal Creek near Birmingham, Alabama.
To get his final shot at Valhalla, the soft-spoken, humble Perry did some “politicking.” He organized a letter-writing campaign to PGA of America officials. He bent the ear of PGA president and longtime friend Ted Bishop. Perhaps most importantly, he stayed on top of his game. The 6-foot-2 Perry still hits drives of more than 300 yards. He’s working hard to improve his chipping—his weakness this year. Perry further justified the PGA of America’s special invitation—issued in late May—to play in the championship, by tying for 28th in June’s U.S. Open.
In addition to wife, Sandy, Justin, and daughters, Lesslye and Lindsey, Perry will draw to Valhalla dozens of friends and family from Simpson County and throughout western Kentucky. Perry, a devout Christian who sometimes speaks to Christian groups while on the road, gives 5 percent of his on-course earnings to Lipscomb University in Nashville in gratitude for the $5,000 a Lipscomb alumnus provided in 1985 to help him get his career started.
When he’s not on the Champions Tour, Perry often can be found at Country Creek Golf Course, a public course he built in his Franklin hometown.
Defending PGA champion Jason Dufner and a recovering Tiger Woods will headline the field at Valhalla, which will feature recently rebuilt bentgrass greens. Campbellsville native J.B. Holmes, a former University of Kentucky standout, earned a spot in the field with a victory in the PGA Tour’s Wells Fargo Championship in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Perry admits that walking up the fairway toward the 18th green in his final round at Valhalla may not be easy. With each shot, his career on golf’s major stage will be winding down.
“I’m trying not to think about that,” he said. “I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it. It will probably be a little emotional. It will definitely be difficult to focus on golf and not on what’s going on outside the ropes. It’ll be a great way to say goodbye.”