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To get to Kenny Perry's Country Creek Golf Course, in Franklin, Ky., you drive by the James Monroe Bluegrass Music Hall, cross the railroad tracks, go past a pair of massive steel chicken-feed silos, cut through soybean and wheat fields, make a left onto Kenny Perry Drive, and then, suddenly, there it is, 6,633 yards of well-manicured community service. There wasn't a public course in all of Simpson County until Perry built one for the people in 1995, and the place is a monument to its proprietor—so low-key there are no weekday tee times, with players moseying to the 1st tee whenever they feel like it.
On this particular summer morning Perry is hosting a breakfast for a couple dozen of Franklin's leading citizens, who had donated the money to cover the spiffy new granite markers on each of Country Creek's tee boxes. Turned out in shorts and sneakers, with a buzz cut right out of American Graffiti, Perry mixes easily with these old friends and acquaintances, sitting at one of the long tables crammed into the pro shop and pigging out on country ham and biscuits and cheesy scrambled eggs, just like everybody else. Though he dominated golf headlines for much of the spring and summer—with his stellar play and his contrarian apathy for the U.S. and British Opens—no one talks about golf here. The conversation floats lightly from summer vacation plans to the new movie at the Franklin drive-in to the health scare of a beloved local. Perry is disinclined to be the center of attention, and when he is compelled to stand up and thank the group, his remarks last no more than 30 seconds.
After breakfast everyone shuffles outside, gathering in the shade of a stand of towering old trees. This morning has been chosen for the dedication of a bench and landscaped sitting area in memory of Gordon Collins, a beloved assistant pro who had worked at the course almost from the day it opened until his death last year at age 41. Teenage cynicism has not yet arrived in Franklin; Collins had eagerly mentored many young golfers, and as friends and family share a few of their favorite stories about Collins, tears are unself-consciously streaming down the cheeks of almost every pimply kid on hand. Perry, too, is wiping his eyes and swallowing hard. After the little ceremony Collins's mother and sister take photos around the bench, insisting that Perry and his wife, Sandy, join them.
A little while later Perry is holding court on the patio outside the pro shop. The mood has lightened. The Franklin-Simpson High team is practicing at Country Creek today, and the kids have gathered to deconstruct their rounds. Perry has close ties to the program—he was an assistant coach for years as his son, Justin, and daughters, Lesslye and Lindsey, passed through the school, and he still donates equipment and advice. He clearly enjoys gently hazing the kids, saying to one, "Don't tell me what you should have shot. Tell me what you did shoot."
This is Perry's first day back in Franklin after a long stretch enduring the grind of Tour life. A few miles away is his big brick house, backing up to Drake's Creek, where he often catches bass or black perch or catfish for dinner, but Country Creek is Perry's home away from home. He seems happy just to hang around the course, catching up on all the gossip. Settling into a patio chair, he sips a soda and lazily monitors the action on the nearby 10th tee and 18th green. Many of the golfers nod or wave or call out to him as they pass by. "Coming home, it's like this big sigh of relief," Perry says. "It's peaceful here. It's relaxing. I'm just Kenny, nothing special. Sitting here on this porch, cool breeze in my face, talking to friends, what could be better?"
Winner of 12 career tournaments, ninth on the alltime earnings list with more than $26 million, Perry could live anywhere, but Franklin (pop. 8,079) suits him just fine. His family has deep roots in the community—grandfather A.M. was the town's mayor, and Kenny's father, Ken (known to everyone as simply Mr. Perry), helped found the local country club. Franklin is where Kenny grew up, where he married his eighth-grade sweetheart and where today his three sisters still live, as do his brother-and mother-in-law. Later this year Lesslye, his elder daughter, will wed a local boy in the church Kenny attends every Sunday when he's not on Tour.
"We're trying to keep the wedding to under 500 people," Sandy says with a sigh.
"I have a feeling the whole town is going to show up," Kenny says with a chuckle, "and that'll be fine. Let 'em all come."
Tucked into the southwest corner of the state, Franklin is such a speck on the map that Perry's PGA Tour colleague Steve Flesch, a native of Union, Ky., says, "I've been all over Kentucky, but I've never been there. It's like that old expression: You have to get lost to find it." Yet Perry is perplexed by suggestions that he should have somehow outgrown Franklin. "This is all I know," he says. "This is home. Always has been, always will be."
PERRY WILL be coming home again for next week's Ryder Cup, played at Valhalla Country Club in Louisville, 130 miles north of Franklin. At the start of this season Perry was 92nd in the World Ranking, 2 1/2 years removed from his last victory and, at 47, seemingly ready to coast through his final few seasons until climbing on the Champions tour gravy train. No one considered him a contender to make the U.S. Ryder Cup team except those around Franklin, who had some inside information. Perry was the featured guest at a Boys & Girls Club fund-raiser late last year, and during a Q and A with the crowd of 350 he revealed that he was going to tailor his schedule in hopes of realizing his only goal for 2008, to make the Ryder Cup team. (This drew a raucous cheer from the crowd.) Perry has long been a familiar sight at the narrow Country Creek driving range, where he smashes restricted-flight balls alongside the paying customers, but there was a different intensity to his workouts heading into this season.