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BILL PLASCHKE

Kenny Perry could make it an old Masters

Kentuckian is trying to become the oldest to win a major title.

April 12, 2009|BILL PLASCHKE

FROM AUGUSTA, GA. — Remember that celebrated television commercial in which a variety of people announce, "I am Tiger Woods?"

Well, I am Kenny Perry.

A little creaky, a little slow, a lot syrupy.

Plodding this earth for nearly a half-century in visors too big and shirts too tight.

A simple Kentuckian who has pretty much given up on being anything other than a collection of wrinkles and guffaws and shrugs.

"Most people who talk about me say I'm a nice guy and I'm a good player, and that's about all you hear," Perry said Saturday night.

He paused.

"Maybe, you know, things will change," he said.

As in, nice guy, great player. Nice guy, green player.

It could happen today when Perry, at age 48, tries to become the oldest man to win one of golf's majors with a victory in the 73rd Masters.

After Saturday's third round, Perry shared a lead with Angel Cabrera, and the spotlight with nobody.

Tiger Woods was in the trees before many folks were getting out of bed and never recovered. Phil Mickelson mounted a comeback simply by not wearing that ugly brown shirt from the previous day, but couldn't sustain it.

The two men will finally be paired on the final day of major -- CBS celebrates! -- but their Easter gift is one of empty plastic eggs, as they will be teeing off exactly seven strokes behind, and an hour earlier, than the 11-under-par leaders.

"You don't want to know my thoughts," the frustrated Woods said.

For once, I don't. Let the rest of America salivate over the most meaningless of duels.

Me, I'm cheering for Kenny Perry.

Nobody in golf has won more money without winning a major ($28 million worth of Tractor Parts Classics), and few in golf would get so emotional at simply the thought.

When asked about putting on the green jacket, his throat found a lump and he slowly said, "I'm not going to answer that question. . . . I just don't want to go there."

When asked whether he thought he could win, he also couldn't answer, saying, "I'm looking forward to seeing what I got."

He also acknowledged what the rest of the golf world is thinking, saying, "This may be my last time to have this kind of opportunity."

While Perry's two-under round of 70 was big for a golfer, he came up even bigger as a human.

"Ken-ny! Ken-ny!" the galleries shouted, giving him standing ovations at both Amen Corner and on the 18th green.

Nobody received more consistent cheers or chants, and with good reason.

Scan the crowd and realize that, with his middle-aged girth and graying hair, Kenny Perry looks like about half of them.

He spent his post-match news conference talking not about his Augusta birdies, but his life's bogeys.

He talked about working as a bag boy in a Florida country club, playing on satellite tours, running out of money, borrowing from a bank and blowing it all, borrowing one last time from his church to attend qualifying school.

"Pretty much down to my last penny," he said.

He talked about making a long-ago promise to repay the loan by donating 5% of his winnings to that church, a donation that has now reached $1.4 million, and who knew?

"I know I can play, I've been there, I've done it, I've won some big tournaments," he said. "But I've never been in this kind of situation that often."

He was close in one major, finishing the 1996 PGA Championship in a first-place tie after 72 holes at Valhalla in Louisville, but he lost the playoff to Mark Brooks amid much criticism.

After finishing early, you see, Perry watched the final regulation holes from the broadcast booth instead of staying loose on the driving range. He sent his first playoff shot into the rough and blew the title in about five minutes.

"I wish I could redo that one over," he said. "That one is still with me today."

As if trying to make it up to fans in his home state's course, he basically blew off last year's major tournaments to prepare for the Ryder Cup, where he was vindicated by becoming the hometown star.

"The Ryder Cup taught me a lot," he said. "Didn't think I could make it. I made it."

He indeed showed Saturday that he has finally figured out how to handle adversity. He was brought to his knees in Amen Corner with consecutive poor-putted bogeys, but he survived to hit a perfect approach shot to set up a birdie on 13, and finished with five consecutive pars to hold a piece of the lead against the charging Cabrera.

"I had a tough day out there. . . . I was struggling. . . . I was nervous," he said.

He showed these nerves once more on the 18th hole when, before setting up for a birdie putt, he turned and stared at the giant scoreboard, and who does that?

"Looking at the leaderboard, there are actually quite a few guys who have a shot at this thing," he said.

Nice pep talk, hmm?

Sure, he's right, he will be chased by the major-winning likes of Cabrera, Jim Furyk, Todd Hamilton and, from a distance, Woods and Mickelson.

But none of those guys ever responded as Kenny Perry did when I asked him how he would spend the eve of the most important round of his life.

It is a question someone asks every Masters leader on Saturday night, and virtually all of them announce they will spend it at their rented home with friends.

Perry is the only one to give me the name of the actual street.

"Hey, I got about 20 folks there, we're going to kick back and have a good ol' time," he said with an aged, honest cackle.

Here's hoping that green jacket comes in a size regular.

--

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

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