One regular at the course, Stan England, says, "I was up there with my grandson Ben, must've been February, and Kenny was all alone on the range. He was like a machine, hitting ball after ball. I could see the tiredness in his face, in his body, but there was no letup in him. It was a sight to behold. I told Ben, 'Pay attention to how hard that man is working. There's a lesson in there for you.'"
The payoff for Perry was a spectacular run that began in May at the AT&T Classic, which he lost in a playoff to Ryuji Imada. Over his next five starts Perry won three times. As he racked up gobs of Ryder Cup qualifying points, he stuck to his single-minded plan, skipping the taxing 36-hole U.S. Open qualifier and passing on the long journey to the British Open, where he was exempt. Instead he played in Milwaukee, a venue better suited to his high-ball game. Perry was barbecued by many in the golf press and even some of his peers for skipping the holy Open, but lost in the acrimony was his simple explanation that he had committed to Milwaukee much earlier in the season, before he was the game's hottest player. Mr. Perry says it was a simple choice given Kenny's small-town values. "What people don't understand is that Kenny done told 'em he was going to play there, so that's all there is to it," says Mr. Perry, still spry enough at 84 to pick the Country Creek driving range every day at 6 a.m. "His word is his word."
While all the other top players were losing their swings (and their minds) in the brutal conditions at Royal Birkdale, Perry shot a final-round 64 in Milwaukee to tie for sixth. He has cooled off slightly over the last few months, but his game is perfect for match play. He is third on Tour in birdie average (3.87 a round), making him a potentially potent partner in better-ball, and as one of the greatest drivers of his generation, he should make a particularly trusty teammate in the alternate-shot format. He will also enjoy a rousing home field advantage. "I expect the Kentucky fans are going to go a little crazy for Kenny," says U.S. captain Paul Azinger. "In fact, I'm counting on it."
Perry is bringing along his own gallery from Franklin. The PGA of America supplied him with 20 badges, and he bought 30 more. ("For $6,000!" he says, still in disbelief.) He also entered the name of every family member he could think of in a public lottery and won 10 more tickets.
"Valhalla is going to be the culmination of my career," Perry says. "It's going to be a celebration. It's my chance to celebrate with my fans and the people who have always supported me. I'm going to enjoy the walk, that's for sure."
Valhalla is a particularly meaningful venue because, as Perry says, "I feel like that place owes me one."
At the '96 PGA Championship at Valhalla, Perry arrived on the 72nd tee with a two-stroke lead. A cautious par on the uphill par-5 would have probably won the tournament, but Perry hit a snap hook into the gnarly bluegrass rough and went on to make bogey. According to Mr. Perry, the partisan crowd was partly to blame: "There were so many Kentuckians out there hootin' and hollerin' and making a ruckus. Kenny heard the cheers up on 18 and thought the guys ahead of him were birdieing, so he figured he needed one more birdie to be safe. But all those fans were cheering because Kenny's scores were being posted up near the green."
Perry still stepped off the final green with a one-stroke lead and was promptly invited to the CBS tower, where he spent a seeming eternity chitchatting with Jim Nantz and Ken Venturi. Perry didn't leave the airwaves until Mark Brooks, playing in the final pairing, birdied the 72nd hole to force sudden death. Perry asked to hit a few practice balls but was denied by PGA of America officials who rushed him straight to the tee for the playoff, bowing to the pressure of CBS and the threat of incoming lightning. After having sat in the booth for nearly 40 minutes, Perry looked stiff and out of sorts in the playoff, taking five slashes to reach the green. He never finished the hole as Brooks made a merciless walk-off birdie. Franklin's Ronnie Ferguson says his friend was partly undone by his shy, retiring nature. "Kenny didn't even want to be on TV, but that's the kind of guy is—he won't say no to anybody," says Ferguson. "And I've heard it said that if he had made a big deal of it, they would've let him hit some balls before the playoff began, but no way Kenny would ever do something like that."
Perry has never been in serious contention at another major, but that doesn't seem to bother the folks around Franklin. "I was proud of the way he handled himself in defeat," says Mr. Perry, fishing a cigar out of the pocket on his denim overalls. After pausing to fiddle with the stogie, he continued. "I've always been proud of him, of the way he's lived his life. He's a good boy. To the best of my knowledge, he's never smoked a cigarette or tasted alcohol or said a bad word. He doesn't even like it when someone else tells a dirty joke, though sometimes I can't help myself."
Adds Ferguson, "That PGA put Kenny on the map, and Franklin too. When I tell people where I'm from, the first thing they always say is, Do you know Kenny Perry? I'm proud to say I do. He's a wonderful ambassador for this town and its values."