Kentucky native Kenny Perry will be playing in what he expects to be his last regular tour event at the 2014 USPGA Championship
In Norse mythology, ‘Valhalla’ is the name given to a majestic, timeless ‘hall of the slain’ – like a special Heaven reserved for fallen heroes.
For Kentucky’s own Kenny Perry, Valhalla lives up to its name in more ways than one. Firstly, Valhalla is unequivocally the finest golf venue in Perry’s home state – a mighty, striking course designed by Jack Nicklaus that this week hosts its third USPGA Championship, and which held the 2008 Ryder Cup. The PGA of America clearly has affection for Valhalla, as do the people of Kentucky, who are flocking here in their thousands this week to pay homage, and Perry is no different. After all, Perry played on Paul Azinger’s 2008 Ryder Cup team, defeating Henrik Stenson in the Sunday singles in front of an adoring, euphoric home crowd.
But Valhalla holds extra significance for Perry, because he should have written one of the greatest chapters in Kentucky’s proud sporting history by winning Valhalla’s inaugural USPGA Championship in 1996. The big-hitting Perry just needed to par the par-five 18th hole in the final round to become a major winner on his own patch, but instead, he dropped a shot while Mark Brooks birdied it, not once, but twice. Brooks’ first birdie on 18 earned him a play-off with Perry, and the second won him the Wannamaker Trophy. Kentucky’s ‘hall of the slain’ took down one of its own.
“It’s human nature to wonder, what if I had made a par here on 18 in 1996,” starts Perry, who turns 54 here on Sunday, and is playing in what he expects to be his last regular tour major, on a special exemption from the PGA of America. “I always think about the 18th hole. I’ve had a hard time with that hole. I can hit a driver and four-iron into the middle of the green; it’s a par five you can make eagle on, so it’s pretty disappointing that I struggle to make even a par on it, much less an easy birdie. In 1996 I hooked my drive really bad, but I still had a 10-footer for par to win the tournament, but I hit a poor putt.”
That was in regulation. By the time his fourth shot reached the green in the play-off, Brooks was on the green in two for the easiest of major-winning finishes. In Kentucky, the 1996 PGA Championship will always be the one that Kenny should have won. “It took me about a year and a half to get over that loss,” he adds.
A winner of 14 PGA Tour titles, and seven on the Champions Tour, including the 3M Championship last week, it is little wonder the people of Kentucky hold Perry in their hearts when you consider that in 1995, he bought 142 acres of land for a golf course and borrowed $2.5 million to build it, in his home town of Franklin, which is 125 miles southwest from Valhalla. Country Creek GC is the only public golf course in Franklin, and Perry insists on keeping it accessible to as many golfers as possible, with a midweek green fee of $28, including buggy. Sometimes Perry even works behind the counter in the pro shop, where one of his most frequently asked questions from visitors is, “Do you know Kenny Perry”?
Kentuckians also love Perry because after his practice round this morning at Valhalla, he stayed by the 18th green for an hour to sign autographs.
“To me it is a way of saying thank you for 30 years of support, love and compassion for me,” he says. “I enjoyed it and it’s great that so many people have come out this week to watch and support me.”
Robin Barwick travelled to the PGA Championship courtesy of Mercedes-Benz. Mercedes-Benz is the official car of the PGA Championship