LINKS LETTER, 2005 ANNUAL EDITION

CHANGE FOR THE BETTER

By Jeff Hopper

Kenny Perry has a lot of friends.

That’s the way it is in Franklin, Kentucky. You get to know people. In fact, you get to know most people. If you can’t call them all by name, you have a pretty good idea where they’re coming from, because they come from the same place you do. It’s earth, like God meant it to be—wide open, tilled by farmers, big and quiet. It allows a man to think. In that way, it’s a lot like a golf course.

Of course, Kenny Perry’s friends—many of them, anyway—are golfers. So that gives them something else in common.

But there is this one little difference. Kenny Perry is a PGA Tour professional. In fact, on the golf course, he is Kentucky’s dominant champion, easily one of the most successful players the state has ever produced.

He is a Ryder Cup team member, a nine-time winner, and in the past three seasons, he has amassed just under $10 million in Tour earnings alone.

All that on the table and Kenny Perry’s friends still stand by their claims. They say their buddy hasn’t changed one bit. So do his colleagues on Tour. So do the Golf Writers of America, who in 2002 presented Perry with the Charles Bartlett Award for “unselfish contributions to the betterment of society.”

Society. Now there’s a word they might laugh at down in Franklin, especially along the Interstate at the Country Creek Golf Course. That’s its abbreviated name. On the billboard it reads like this: Kenny Perry’s Country Creek Golf Course. That’s because this really is The Club That Kenny Built. It is not at all the course he grew up on.

Like a lot of boys, Perry was introduced to the game by his dad. Kenny’s father belonged to the nine-hole private club across town. So avid a golfer was Ken, Sr., that his own golf buddies nicknamed Kenny “7-iron” when he was born because his father was so adept around the greens chipping with a 7-iron.

By the time Kenny was seven, father and son spent many days together at the driving range, a memory that resides strongly even now. “He would sit on the ground for hours and tee the golf ball up,” Perry says. “I would hit, then I’d run down the fairway and grab all the balls. Then I’d run back and lay them by him and say, ‘Let’s do it again!’ “It was three years later when Perry’s father, who is now 82, took Kenny to his first tournament. Lee Trevino, in his prime, walked over to the gallery, shook Mr. Perry’s hand, then reached down and shook Kenny’s hand, too.

“That was kind of when it all started that I knew I wanted to play on the PGA Tour,” Perry recalls.

It’s the kind of beginning that can go to most guys’ heads. Country club living, country club learning. Straight to the top.

Not Kenny Perry. Oh, he’s one of the world’s best, no doubt about it. But he still comes home to Franklin. And he still plays golf there. But not at the country club. Not any more.

Now when Perry’s not on the road, winning at Muirfield Village or Colonial or Bay Hill, he’s out at Country Creek. In fact, stop in some time and you just might find him working in the shop, as he was doing the week before he made his way to the Tour Championship last fall. When you own the place, you’re never sure how you might have to jump in and help. After all, jumping in and helping is what led to all this.

“I was raised on the private course here and a lot of buddies couldn’t play because they weren’t members,” he explains. “So I just felt like it was wrong for everybody in town to have to drive to Nashville or Bowling Green to play public golf. I just felt like the town needed it. We built a little 18-hole facility for them.”

Little it is, that’s for sure, topping out at 6,574 yards. There’s almost no trouble right, where golfers who slice it need some extra room.

In other words, for his buddies and a whole lot of other golfers in Franklin, Kenny Perry is trying to make things what they have not always been for him: easy.

The often hidden truth about making it on the PGA Tour is just how hard it is to ever get there. The competition is not just fierce, it’s vast. Players who can regularly break par may make up less than one percent of those who play the game, but the closer you get to the Tour, they’re popping up behind every 150-yard marker, often two or three at a time.

One thing that helps is if a man has anchors in his life. For Perry, there has always been Franklin. And there has almost always been Sandy.They met in kindergarten, which would be pretty unbelievable just about anywhere else. A boy and a girl and nothing you would think to call romance at that age. But they grew up together, right through eighth grade, until Perry’s family moved to Paducah while he was in high school.

After his freshman year at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, Perry was working for his brother-in-law on the town square in Franklin. It was where many local kids went cruising in the warmth of the summer evenings.

“I remember seeing her in her parents’ car as she cruised around,” Perry says. “She went around a couple of times, so I went out and started talking to her. Next thing you know I asked her out.”

They dated all through college, while he was at Western Kentucky and she was down in Nashville at Lipscomb University. They were married in 1982, right after graduation.

The new Mrs. Kenny Perry had much to pour into her husband’s life. They had both grown up in church, but it was Sandy’s influence that solidified her husband’s own pursuit of Christ. She also stood by him as they began to travel the mini-tours and build the foundation for what has become an outstanding PGA Tour career. That building wasn’t easy.

“Sandy and I moved to Vero Beach, Florida, in 1982, and I was playing the mini-tours down there and trying to work my way up,” Perry says. “I was flat struggling. I had sponsors who gave me money and I’d used up all their money. We weren’t making much, living off probably $800 a month. And we had a child.”

That child, Lesslye, who these days is away at college, weighed heavily on Perry’s mind. This was a Kentucky boy who knew what it meant to work for a living and raise a family off one’s work. But that wasn’t happening for Perry, so he went looking for advice.

He approached his friend, Ricky Hazelip, a youth minister in Vero Beach. “I went to Ricky one day and I said, ‘Ricky, I don’t know what God wants from me, what He wants restored in my life, but I need some answers. I need a door opened here or there. I need direction.’ “So they started praying together, sometimes two or three times a day.

“Our prayer was, ‘If I’m going to stay in golf, God, open a door, give me some success, show me a direction, show me something that’s going to keep me in golf. If not, open up another door and send me in that direction. I’d be fine with that.’ ”

Having missed his PGA Tour card by a shot, Perry was doing what he could to survive. So he loaded Sandy and Lesslye into a little Nissan Maxima and drove from Franklin to Albuquerque to play a TPS Tour event. “Just a long trip,” Perry recalls. Almost 1,300 miles to be exact.

But Perry played well, finishing second when Jim Gallagher, Jr., holed a 20-footer on the last hole. Still, Perry’s take was $20,000.

“At the time, that’s a huge amount of money. That right then opened my eyes to the prayers we were asking for, and it kind of showed me a little direction,” says Perry. “I felt like God was saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to stay in golf a little longer. You hang in there and it’s going to be OK.’ “Perry hung in there. For a while. But by 1986, he was at the end of his finances again. He thought he had maybe one more chance at the big time. But he would need help.

“I went to an elder at my church here in Franklin—the Franklin Church of Christ—Ronnie Ferguson was his name. I said, ‘Ronnie, I’m out of money. I’ve put a lot of time into this golf thing and I’d like to go to that qualifying school one more time,’ ” Perry recalls. “I told him I needed $5,000 because I had to go to a local site, which was in Indiana, and if I made it there, I went to a regional site in Florida, and if I made it out of there I went to a final site, which was in California at PGA West.”

Ferguson’s response was a surprise to Perry, something he calls “one of the greatest lessons I’ve ever been taught.”

Perry tells it like this: “Ronnie came to me and he said, ‘Kenny, I’m going to give you the money.’ Then he looked me straight in the eye. He said, ‘If you make the PGA Tour, we’re going to give something back to God, but if you don’t, you don’t owe me a dime.’ “It was Ferguson’s unselfishness that caught Perry’s attention. “He had two boys in college at the time,” Perry says.

Whether the lesson freed him up or fired him up, Kenny Perry went on a tear that fall. “Man, I breezed right through Indiana, Florida, went to PGA West, breezed right through it all, and I got my Tour card.” Even his voice smiles with the memory.

What Perry has done since then is two-fold. He has made a career out of the PGA Tour. And he has given five percent of his earnings to Lipscomb University. To date, that’s right at $1 million, held in a trust fund that goes to kids from Franklin’s Simpson County who are allowed a scholarship to Lipscomb.

“Our goal—Sandy and I have been talking about this—is make it to where a child from this area can choose a Christian college over a regular college—Western or UK or wherever—and have it cost the same,” says Perry. “Our goal is if a child chooses a Christian education, they’re not going to be held back for lack of money.”

Ask Perry what has been most rewarding about his career, and he would likely take you down this path every time. “It’s a great story I love to tell,” he says, “because it shows how God has used me week in and week out and the money goes to further His cause. It gives kids a chance to know the Lord.”

That’s a lot of talk about God. And it sounds a little breezy. But the truth is, Kenny Perry has still had to pay his dues.

The hardest of times may have come closest to home. In 1996, the PGA Championship was held at Valhalla Country Club in Louisville, a couple of hours from Franklin.

In 2003, Perry finished third in the U.S. Open Championship at Olympia Fields. But even then, he was seven shots back of winner Jim Furyk. Otherwise, his record in majors has been mostly dismal.Except for that weekend at Valhalla.

Perry, so near home and surrounded by friends, entered the Sunday round two back of Vijay Singh and Mark Brooks. Steve Elkington had him by a shot. Playing ahead of his competitors, Perry played strongly, posting 68 for a one-shot lead at the time he walked off the golf course, despite a hackish bogey on the final hole.

Where he walked to has led to a thousand inquisitions since—he made his way into the CBS broadcast tower to chat with Jim Nantz and Ken Venturi. They talked about his round and Brooks parred the tough seventeenth to stay close. They talked some more and Brooks zeroed in on the green at the par-5 eighteenth. He was about to make birdie to send the championship into a playoff, and Perry was still up in the booth.

Perry says now that all that time in the tower was no big deal, that he didn’t really need to hit balls to stay warm. It was a hot, humid summer day in Louisville after all. But when he and Brooks returned to the eighteenth hole to begin their playoff—which in those days was a sudden-death affair—Perry drove his ball far too far. Though on line, it bounded through the fairway into the thick rough. By the time he’d made his way to the green in four shots, Brooks was easing his way to another birdie.

As far as all of Kentucky was concerned, Brooks had stolen someone else’s trophy. That someone was their very own Kenny Perry.

There’s no telling how much a player is affected by one great disappointment, but the setback at Valhalla seemed to slow Perry’s rise. He had earned his way to the Tour Championship, which requires a top-30 finish in season’s earnings, in ’94, ’95, and ’96. The next three years, he was never close.

And then he turned 40.

There are times when a word like renaissance can be its own cliché. But for Kenny Perry, the years of his fifth decade have brought nothing less than revival to a rather mundane career. He had won once in 1991, once in 1994, once in 1995. The door was never all that wide open, but by 2001, it seemed altogether closed.

That is, until the week of his 41st birthday in mid-August. For the prior three months, he had been close, landing in the top 10 four times. At the Buick Open, he landed on top, winning for the first time in six years.

In 2002, close was all he came. But two runner-up showings and a third and a fourth kept him salivating.

Then came the explosion.

At the Bank of America Colonial in Fort Worth, he won, cinching the matter with a 64 on Friday and a 61 on Saturday.

One week later, he moved on to Muirfield Village, site of his first Tour victory 12 years earlier, for the Memorial. He started where he’d left on in Texas, opening with a 65. Three days later, he was shaking the hand of tournament host Jack Nicklaus for the second time in his career. And he was depositing the winner’s check for the second week in a row.

After a week off, he went to Olympia Fields for the U.S. Open. Only Furyk and Stephen Leaney outdid him.

Then he relaxed for three weeks, taking some time off. It didn’t faze him. When he returned to the Tour in Milwaukee, he won again.

He played four times in the next five weeks, including the British Open Championship and the PGA Championship. All top 10s.

He closed the year with one more top 10 at the Tour Championship, ending the season with more than $4.4 million and a whole new level of respect from golf’s learned fans.

Perry missed a beat in 2004 but regained his pace last season. Twice more he won—at Bay Hill, to complete the Nicklaus-Palmer sweep, and repeating at Colonial.

The begging question is absurdly obvious: Why now?

“I can attribute a lot of that to happiness at home,” Perry explains. “I have two kids in college now and one, she’s a senior in high school. They’re all happy. Sandy’s done a great job raising them. It’s actually allowed me to concentrate more on my golf game and try to set up a future for my kids and look forward to retirement. That’s taken a lot of pressure off me.”

Of course, retirement is something of a misnomer for a golfer. Perry’s current exemptions on the Tour will carry him right through to age 50, when he’ll be eligible to play the Champions Tour.

But there is also little reason to look ahead. Perry plays with and beats the world’s best players, though his down home humility won’t let him get too far ahead of himself.

“I never go in there with a mindset saying, ‘I’m going to win.’ You’re playing with the best players in the world. Come on now, that’s crazy,” Perry says. “I just go in there with the mindset that if I’m swinging good and feeling good, you know, I’ve got a good chance here.”

Um, yes. That “good chance” allowed Perry to edge Singh at Bay Hill last year, and run away at Colonial, beating Billy Mayfair by seven.

Kenny Perry’s good chances, it looks like, are far from running out. Nor his good life.

But that is right where his friends are coming from when they claim he’s the same Kenny he has always been.

Perry’s good life has never been tied to his dreams. It has never been tied to his money. Absolutely, you get the sense that if all of this had never happened—the Tour card, the Tour wins, the Tour-sized paychecks—Perry would be as content as the players who fill Country Creek on a sunny weekend afternoon.

He draws deeply from the well of family. He knows what it means to put down roots. Even in his biggest endeavors, he tries to keep things simple.

But the truth is, Perry has long carried a dream. He has carried it since that day Lee Trevino shook his hand. And he has never let that dream go.

“I had a lot of people when I was growing up tell me that I was crazy for pursuing what I was doing,” he says. “I would tell everybody as a kid and in high school that I was going to play on the PGA Tour. I would flat tell you that. I was that confident.”

But along the line, confidence met reality and Perry had to go to other sources. He went to his wife, his church, his friends, his children. He also had to dig into himself.

“I’ve always been a very proud person, and I’ve always been very determined,” he says without apology. “That was given to me by my father. My father was the kind of person who would love to win at everything. He’d beat me at games bad, and then he’d laugh in my face when he’d beat me. So all these things were what made me the person I am today.”

They’ve made him, among other things, a most generous person. One who wants others to have not only what he has had but more. He wants them to have an education. He wants them to have a place to play golf. And he wants them to get after their dreams.

“I look at kids and I ask them, ‘What do you want to do? What are you after? Never lose sight of your dream, never lose sight of your love.’

“I just tell them, ‘You can do anything you want to do in life. If you put God first and you continue to strive for what you want to do, those doors are going to be open for you. You’ll make it.’

“That’s not expressed enough in this world. People like to get on you and beat on you a little bit. They kind of like to feel superior to you. The world does that a little bit. But I think it’s easy to get out on top with just three simple rules: God first, family second, and your career third. That puts your life in perspective and it makes it easy to get up each and every day.”

A lot of folks have paid big money for wisdom like that. A few others have found it every so often in a golf shop off I-65 in Franklin, Kentucky. It’s given by the guy behind the counter, the one who’ll take your $32 weekend green fee, cart included. Oh, and just to be sure you’ve found him, he’s the guy with the really big bag and the right-at-home smile.

Just be sure you don’t make the same mistake others have made—those sad cases who’ve come into the shop and asked, “So how’s Kenny Perry doing?”

That guy will look you squarely in the eye and say, “Oh, he’s doin’ just fine.”

COPYRIGHT 2005 LINKS PLAYERS INTERNATIONAL

  • Kenny Perry

    14 PGA Tour Wins: 1991 Memorial Tournament, 1994 New England Classic, 1995 Bob Hope Chrysler Classic, 2001 Buick Open, 2003 Bank of America Colonial, 2003 Memorial Tournament, 2003 Greater Milwaukee Tournament, 2005 Bay Hill Invitational Presented by MasterCard, 2005 Bank of America Colonial, 2008 Memorial Tournament, 2008 Buick Open, 2008 John Deere Classic, 2009 FBR Open, 2009 Travelers Championship

    9 PGA Tour Champions wins (three majors): 2011 SAS Championship, 2012 ACE Group Classic, 2013 Constellation Senior Players Championship, 2013 U.S. Senior Open, 2013 AT&T Championship, 2014 Regions Tradition, 3M Championship, 2015 3M Championship, 2017 U.S. Senior Open