LOUISVILLE — Kenny Perry didn’t crack here Tuesday as he returned to Valhalla Golf Club, the scene of his biggest disappointment in his professional golf career, to talk — presumably — about the PGA Championship that starts Thursday and runs through Sunday.
Perry, a 53-year-old native of Franklin, Ky., was repeatedly asked about the 1996 PGA, when he blew a one-shot lead on the 72nd hole and lost in a playoff to Mark Brooks.
Perry went on to blow a late two-shot lead to Miguel Cabrera at the 2009 Masters, but he readily admits it was the ‘96 PGA that hurts the most.
“It’s always what if,” Perry said when asked what is the one memory that stands above the rest about ‘96. “I mean, I always think about the 18th hole. I hooked my drive really bad on the 72nd hole into trouble and laid up poorly. I did have a 10-footer for par to win the tournament, and I hit a poor putt.”
Even as he looks forward to his 2:05 tee time Thursday in this week’s PGA Championship, Perry spent a lot of time looking back Tuesday because he was too nice not to answer all the questions about ‘96 and ‘09 — his two best chances to win a major.
“You always look back,” said Perry, who, oh by the way, has won 21 tournaments between the PGA Tour and Champions Tour, pocketing nearly $35 million along the way. “Human nature will say, what if I had made a par here on 18 in ‘96, and won the PGA Championship; what if I had parred 17 or 18 at Augusta and I would have won the green jacket.
“They were blows. If I would have won those two majors, you could look at my career as a Hall of Fame career. I would have won 16 times (on the PGA Tour) and two majors. I mean, Freddie Couples gets in with 15 wins and one major. I was that close.”
But Perry said the fallout from those disappointments has been positive, even if it didn’t seem like it at the time.
“It taught me a lot about finishing, and not getting ahead of yourself and thinking about the prize at the end,” Perry said of the ‘96 PGA. “Got me more in the moment, and helped me down the road win golf tournaments. It made me grow up a little bit, I guess you could say.”
But Perry said it took him a year to a year and a half to get over that loss.
“I played very poorly after that event,” said Perry, who helped the United States win the Ryder Cup at Valhalla in 2008. “I was always thinking about it. But then, once I got through that, the loss at the Masters didn’t really bother me that bad. I won two weeks later at Hartford. I guess it just made me tougher more than anything.”
Asked again about regret, Kenny Perry said this: “You can look at it two ways. You can fold up and kick the dog, whatever, be sorry about yourself...but I didn’t look at it that way. I love playing golf. I love competing, and I love providing for my family. It’s been a great career. I’ve met a lot of people along the way. I’ve travelled the world. The experience are what I call scrapbooking. You’ve got all these experiences in your life that make up who you are.
“Yeah, there are some down times, but yet I’ve had a lot of great times and a lot of wins. I’ve won 14 times on the regular tour and seven times on the Champions Tour. I’ve had way more ups than downs, and not a lot of guys can really say that playing golf.”
Perry has momentum coming into this PGA, off a one-stroke win — thanks to a birdie on 18 Sunday — over Bernhard Langer in the Champions’ 3M Championship in Blaine, Minnesota. But he doesn’t sound overly optimistic about winning the PGA.
Perry was asked what it would mean to take home the title on Sunday, on what will be his 54th birthday.
“That would be a Cinderella story,” he said. “I’ve thought about it, but it’s dreamland, really. I’ve got a lot more gray hair than I did back in ‘96. I just want to be competitive.
“I’m not trying to be the best golfer in the world anymore,” he added. “I’m just trying to enjoy each and every moment I’ve got.”