For Kenny Perry, Valhalla is a site of heartbreak and heroics

Kenny Perry signed autographs for fans after a practice round at Valhalla Golf Club on Tuesday. "It's a way of saying thank you for 30 years of support," he said.
Kenny Perry signed autographs for fans after a practice round at Valhalla Golf Club on Tuesday. "It's a way of saying thank you for 30 years of support," he said. AP

LOUISVILLE — Kenny Perry usually baby-sits his grandkids every Tuesday, but instead of chasing after 3-year-old Rowdy and 1-year-old Milly this week, he's trying to keep up with a bunch of young golfers in the 96th PGA Championship.

Perry is back at Valhalla, which has provided important touchstones in his golfing life. On Tuesday, he talked about how much it means to him to return to a place where he has experienced the lowest of lows and the highest of highs.

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In 1996, if not for a bogey on the 72nd hole, he would have won the PGA title here. Instead, he lost to Mark Brooks in a playoff.

"It took me about a year, a year-and-a-half, to get over that loss," he said.

In 2008, Perry enjoyed one of the best weeks of his life here by helping the Americans rout the Europeans and win back the Ryder Cup.

"My dad, at 86 years old, coming on the green in bib overalls and giving me a hug. It was pretty special for a father and son," he said.

No wonder Perry is so appreciative that the PGA invited him to play this week, giving him a chance to make a curtain call at this late stage of his career.

"You know, this is home," Perry said of Valhalla. "To me this is the pinnacle of golf in Kentucky. I'm just excited for the opportunity to go out the back door, as they say, one more time."

Nobody signed more autographs than Perry during Tuesday's practice round.

"To me, it's a way of saying thank you for 30 years of support, and thank you for your love and compassion for me," he said.

Perry confessed that he still thinks about "what if" he had won the 1996 PGA, and the 2009 Masters (he lost to Angel Cabrera in a playoff).

"You always look back," he said. "If I would have had those two majors, you could look at my career as a Hall of Fame career."

Instead of letting those defeats define him, he learned better how to win: "It made me stronger. You can fold up and kick the dog and be sorry for yourself, but I didn't look at it that way."

Since letting that PGA title slip away 18 years ago, Perry has garnered 11 PGA Tour titles, a Ryder Cup, seven Champions Tour victories (three of them senior majors) and $33 million in earnings.

Last week Perry went to the senior tour's 3M Championship in Minnesota planning to use it as a tune-up for Valhalla. To his surprise, he shot 65-63-65--193 to beat Bernhard Langer by a shot.

Does he have a chance to give the home-state fans something to cheer about this week?

"It's going to take a great effort from me just to even be competitive," he said.

Perry pointed out that he'll be in a tough spot Thursday and Friday. He's paired with Henrik Stenson and Ryan Moore. The group behind him features this year's major champs — Bubba Watson, Rory McIlroy and Martin Kaymer. The group ahead of him includes Tom Watson.

"They throw me right in the mix of all these great players, so Kentucky is going to see me either have a lot of nerves, or hopefully I can soak it all in. Whatever happens, happens."

The final round of the 1996 PGA was the day after Perry's 36th birthday. The final round of the PGA this week falls on Perry's birthday.

What if, 18 years later, he made another grab at the Wanamaker Trophy?

"That would be a Cinderella story, to be competitive on your birthday at 54 years old," he said. "I thought about it, but that's dreamland, really."

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