Perry will have raucous following at Valhalla

By Associated PressSeptember 13, 2008, 4:00 pm
Ryder CupThe sign went up on the side of old Cardinal Stadium the day after the Kentucky State Fair wrapped up in August. Big and red and bold.
 
You can see it from the interstate as you make your way through the heart of the city, the leading face of this year's U.S. Ryder Cup team with a grin as wide as the backstretch at nearby Churchill Downs and the words 'Play Well' splayed across the front.
 
Kenny Perry never looked so good.
 
Kenny Perry and Stewart Cink
Kenny Perry looks for better results than his first Ryder Cup appearance in 2004. (Getty Images)
The hype has been building for years around the biggest golf event ever to come to Kentucky. And it matters not that Tiger Woods won't be there. The buzz in the Bluegrass State is for one of golf's most unassuming stars, and folks are preparing to turn Valhalla into a family reunion.
 
Who needs Tiger? Kentucky's got Kenny.
 
The self-proclaimed good 'ol boy from southern Kentucky has become one of the main attractions on this U.S. Ryder Cup team, a 48-year-old who has stayed loyal to Main Street on a tour ruled by Madison Avenue.
 
The two worlds will collide during the Ryder Cup, thrusting Perry into a spotlight he's never felt comfortable embracing. But nearing the end of a solid career that lacks a defining moment, Perry knows this Ryder Cup is his last best chance to construct a legacy while honoring the community that helped raise him from prodigy to pro and never let him forget where he came from.
 
'If I can somehow get through this Ryder Cup thing, this is what I'm after,' Perry says. 'This is what I want to be known for, what I want to be remembered for.'
 
Maybe to the outside world, but down in his hometown of Franklin, Kenny will always be Kenny.
 
The proof lies in the cluttered office in Randall Carver's auto body shop, maybe the last place you'd expect to find a check for a million dollars.
 
But there it is, in its oversized glory, leaning against the wall underneath a shelf loaded with yellowing parts manuals, all framed up with nowhere to hang.
 
Perry's name is written across the front, a memento from his victory at the Colonial in 2005. Ask Carver how he got his hands on the check from one of his best friend's biggest paydays and he just laughs.
 
'Oh, Kenny gave it to me,' he says over the sound of an air wrench coming from one of the bays. 'I think he thought it'd be neat.'
 
With that Carver plunges into two hours of stories, some funny, some poignant, some both. Perry trying to help Carver change the brake fluid on a car, then everyone bursting into laughter when Perry couldn't tell the brake pedal from the clutch. Perry, Carver and a couple other hot rod enthusiasts drag racing on a remote stretch of road outside town. Perry fishing $200 out of his pocket to help a woman who wandered into Carver's shop after her car broke down on the interstate, offering to help her finish a trip to see family in New York.
 
'That's just Kenny,' Carver says. 'He's never changed. He's the same guy he's always been.'
 
In an era when many PGA TOUR players head for exclusive gated communities in Florida or Arizona as soon as they can afford it, Perry has remained faithful to his Kentucky roots.
 
Those roots are why, even as he nears 50, he is playing some of the best golf of his career. Sure, winning three times this year has been nice, but the tournaments were only the means to an end: the Ryder Cup.
 
Perry set his sights on making this team the day the PGA of America announced the competition against Europe's best players was coming to Valhalla, about two hours up the road in Louisville.
 
'I feel like this is my last shot, to tell you the truth, at my age,' Perry says. 'It may not be, but just to be at home, in front of everybody, it's going to be a special week for me. It's going to be magical.'
 
Besides, the course owes him one.
 
Perry was in the lead on the 18th tee during the 1996 PGA Championship at Valhalla when he pulled his drive into the rough, made bogey and wound up in a playoff that Mark Brooks won in sudden death.
 
Not winning a major is one of the few holes in Perry's sparkling resume. Another is the Ryder Cup. He's only made the team once, going 0-2 in 2004. He played poorly that week, and knee surgery in 2006 had him wondering whether he'd ever make it back.
 
Yet Valhalla has given him focus. He's won the Memorial, the Buick Open and the John Deere Classic this year and easily qualified for the U.S. team despite not playing in three of the four majors, some of them by design.
 
Perry caught some flak when he opted to skip the British Open, instead honoring his promise to play in Milwaukee. Perry wasn't eligible for any of the majors at the start of the season.
 
Sticking to his original plan rankled some purists who wondered why the red-hot Perry would bypass a major for a more run-of-the-mill TOUR stop.
 
'You know, it seems like negative comments and criticisms just fire me up, that's all, just makes me play harder,' he says. 'When I get something burning in my belly, it just kind of inspires me to work a little harder and at my age I need that because I'm getting kind of lazy.'
 
It's hard to tell by his schedule.
 
Most days during the offseason you can find him pounding range balls on the modest golf course he owns on the southern end of town, just a couple of booming drives away from the Tennessee border.
 
Perry built the course so the recreational golfers in the area who couldn't afford to join the Franklin Country Club had a place to play. Sometimes if you're lucky, heck, maybe if you're just around, he'll join you for a quick 18, perhaps with fellow Kentuckian and Ryder Cup teammate J.B. Holmes in the golf cart next to him.
 
When he's out on the course, he's not Kenny Perry, 12-time PGA TOUR winner and multimillionaire. He's Kenny from church or Kenny the cutup.
 
'He'll be standing out there in the fairway with you, and there'll be water on the right and he knows you hit it in the water yesterday,' Carver says. 'When you're about to swing, he'll say something like 'Hey, I think I've heard of people hitting it in the water here. You've got to be careful.' He wants you to have fun while you're out there.'
 
Sit around in Carver's shop long enough and Perry will probably stop by, though you'll likely hear him before you see him. Perry has two garages full of cars and spends much of his free time restoring hot rods with Carver. When Perry is home he tends to announce his presence by letting one of his toys ' maybe the restored Camaro ' rip while he rolls up Main Street.
 
Perry's presence at the Ryder Cup will be just as pronounced.
 
Jim Richards, Perry's coach at Western Kentucky, described the frenzy during the final round of the '96 PGA to a college football or basketball game.
 
'Everywhere you went, people were shouting 'Go Big Red' or 'Go WKU' ' Richards says. 'He played with Greg Norman the last day and Greg was accustomed to getting the spirit and the yelling in his favor. But when they were putting their shoes on in the locker room, Kenny told him 'Greg, this isn't going to be your day, it's going to be my day.' '
 
It almost was. Almost.
 
A dozen years later, Valhalla beckons again.
 
Related Links:
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