ATLANTA – Twelve months ago, adjacent the same oddly placed par-3 closing hole at East Lake, Kenny Perry hit the wall just as squarely as one of those muscle cars he has stashed in his garage.
Physically and emotionally empty, Perry seethed at a Tour official for having the misfortune of telling him his number had been pulled for performance-enhancing drug testing.
“Everybody else on Tour has been tested at least once?” snapped Perry, who had already been subjected to numerous testings.
The frustration, although misplaced, was understandable. Perry was fresh off the American Ryder Cup victory and the weight of the entire state of Kentucky had taken a toll.
This was not that guy.
No, the Perry who covered his first four holes on Saturday in 4 under and nearly one-putted East Lake’s front nine (he ruined his perfect outward loop with a three-putt at the sixth), is negotiating a different path this time around.
This Perry is humbled, more so than haggard, by the emotions of receiving the Payne Stewart Award and an ailing mother at home whose health took a turn for the worse this week.
With his son Justin on the bag and wife, Sandy, and daughter, Lesslye, trailing in the gallery, the soon-to-be senior stole Tiger Woods’ thunder on a day that was framed at the outset by threatening skies.
Perry’s 6-under 64 moved him atop the playoff finale leaderboard at 8 under, two strokes ahead of Woods.
Tim Finchem wanted BCS-like tension to grip his playoffs, and Perry’s third round started the discussion. If the 49-year-old holds on for the “W” on Sunday and if Woods finishes no better than a three-way tie for third and the Braves remain three games out of the National League wildcard race, Perry will collect that $10 million windfall, or something like that.
Perry’s birdie barrage eased up after the turn and he saved his round with a 9 footer for par at the 13th, not that he could be certain what hole he was playing after Phil Mickelson, playing a few groups ahead, high kicked the “13th hole” sign in half. Seems about right for a guy who has kick started his season just when it matters.
Not that Perry has been much of a fall guy during his career. All of his 14 Tour titles have come in the spring and summer and even at last year’s Ryder Cup, a charged home game at Valhalla, he was not at his best.
“I’ve never been a great September player,” Perry said. “I’d take September off most years and coach high school golf.”
With almost as many September swoons as the Chicago Cubs and a less-than-stellar playoff record this year (T-52 Barclays, T-46 Deutsche Bank Championship, T-45 BMW Championship), the Southerner began his Tour Championship on Thursday with something akin to a meltdown.
He was so drained by Thursday’s heat and humidity he consumed more water than a camel and still wasn’t right for Round 2. On Saturday, however, he simply sizzled.
Perry’s 64 tied the low round of the week and the lowest round since the club reworked Donald Ross’ greens two years ago. As is normally the case, his play can be traced to Tuesday-Wednesday tinkering. A new putter grip and a slight adjustment in his ball position at address with his driver added up to 202 strokes.
“He’s confident over his putts now, that’s the biggest change,” said Justin Perry, who took over dad’s bag at the Deutsche Bank Championship. “In Boston and at Cog Hill he didn’t putt well. He was hitting it good, but he just couldn’t capitalize on his opportunities.”
On Sunday he will have one of the biggest opportunities of his career, after his Masters near miss this year and that home game Ryder Cup victory last year. He will also have a rare head-to-head with Woods, who he has been paired with just twice on a Tour Sunday.
“He better bring his ‘A’ game is all I have to say,” Perry joked.
Actually, Perry said he’d use the occasion to politic for a Presidents Cup pairing with the world No. 1 – that’s if assistant captain Michael Jordan hasn’t already called dibs on all of Woods’ team openings.
“I’m scrapbooking guys,” he smiled. “I’d love to play one match with him.”
Asked about the possibility of winning the $10 million FedEx Cup jackpot on Sunday, and Perry’s response was subdued, if not predictable.
“It’s not going to change my life,” said Perry, who figures he will use most of the bonus to start a foundation to help others.
Earlier this year Perry said he wanted 20 Tour victories before he roared into the sunset in one of those muscle cars. He eased off on that lofty goal shortly afterwards, likely due to his mother’s on-going health problems and a body that didn’t respond like it once did.
And yet there he was on Saturday, old “lift and smash,” Perry’s nickname during his mini-tour days, splitting fairways and shrugging off his solid play with a boyish grin.
“I don’t understand why I keep playing as well as I do,” Perry said.
The arm-chair sports psychologist among us would guess it has something to do with a renewed clarity of thought brought on by his mother’s illness and the emotions of the Stewart award, which he called humbling.
No, this is not the same Perry who went through the motions last year at East Lake. This time around, the Tour Championship presented by Coca-Cola is getting a boost from a Sarsaparilla guy.