James Lawton: Competitive fire fails to take Perry to highest level

American veteran, unable to fulfil his dream of making good on a lifetime of struggle and taking a place among elite.

If he could stand up to the best of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, if he could keep his nerve and a new and biting sense of himself, how could the old man not win one of the most tumultuous golf tournaments we are ever likely to see?



It is the question Kenny Perry is now obliged to ask for the rest of his life.

For Perry, 48-years-old and as rotund as a tavern keeper back home in Kentucky, it must have seemed like a sneak preview of his career obituary when the world's number one and two players disinterred themselves from three days of strange passivity.

Perry had however, at least we thought we saw on the 16th tee, enough to carry himself to a different level in both the eyes of the world and himself. It was not far enough, though, not nearly far enough, when Angel Cabrera added a green jacket to a US Open title on a second play-off hole.

After Mickelson and Woods exhausted their ability to turn logic on its head, Perry left the ball stiff against the flag for a vital lead. The birdie carried him two shots clear of his closest rivals, Chad Campbell and Cabrera.

The trouble was Kenny Perry deceived everybody, and most calamitously himself. In the end he didn't have enough of the winning stuff. His nerve failed him – it was as brutally simple as that.

One moment he was contemplating the possibility of becoming the oldest player ever to win a major title, the next he was, psychologically speaking, diving under a table.

This first happened when Mickelson sped to a breathtaking, six-under par 30 on the outward nine. The Tiger, who was almost as stunned as Perry, birdied the second and eagled the eighth – between them they had made the tournament leader's overnight advantage over them of seven shots seem as flimsy as a small pile of matchsticks.

Naturally, everyone expected Perry to do the polite, courtly southern thing, make his apologies and leave. His years here had, after all, not exactly been a roll call of glory: eight appearances, five failures to beat the cut, scoring average of 73.86 and a best finish of 12th – 14 years ago.

However, it seemed that something had stirred in the good 'ole boy these last few days, and Mickelson, he made clear, would have to do more than scare the lights out of him. He would have to keep his nerve ... and the edge of his game.

Why was Perry provoked to announce that he could surpass Jack Nicklaus, aged 46, and Julius Boros, 48, as major title holders who refused to bend to the march of time?

Maybe it was all the talk of Tiger returning triumphantly to reclaim his empire – or of bright kids from places like Ireland and New Zealand and Japan who weren't even born when he and his wife were sharing, rent-free, a relative's tiny apartment and he was seeing his own hopes crumble, one by one.

Whatever it was, Perry told himself more ferociously than ever before that he wanted something other than the security that financial security that eventually came with 13 tour victories.

He wanted to be somebody – not someone just sitting on the stoop back home telling of the days when he brushed against players like Woods and Mickelson and ageing legends like Jack Nicklaus and Arnie Palmer and Gary Player. He wanted to tell not of how he knew them but how he beat them.

It was a resolve that by the dusk of Saturday evening appeared to have taken hold of every fibre of his body – and yesterday helped him put his head down and run off a string of pars to hold his lead as the Mickelson and Woods performance rumbled ominously.

On Saturday Perry shared the lead with Cabrera, who though nearly a decade his junior had already proved that he could win one of the big ones. They had played to their limits – and were seven shots clear of Woods and Mickelson, the glory boys who had to go out on to the course a full hour before the principal duellists appeared. But then in the dusk of last night Mickelson and Woods had gone and Perry was scuffling against Cabrera – and the dour Texan.

For some years it seemed that Perry had soothed the disappointment of losing his one chance of a major title win – in a PGA play-off in 1996 – with his periodic tour titles and a string of pay cheques.

But then how many houses do your need, how many cars, how much sweetness can be injected into a life beyond the dreams of the young, scrabbling golfer whose daily chore was to stamp on a few invading cockroaches?

Such a reflection had plainly brought Kenny Perry to a competitive edge last produced when the European Ryder Cup arrived in his home state last September. Before yesterday's action he was talking about possibly the perfect focus of his long career. "You know what, we got 18 holes to go and I'm in a great spot. I've got something that I can achieve that will move me up another notch on the totem pole. I go from a good player to maybe people start thinking I'm a better player than just a good player. I'm never thinking I'm a superstar, but 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.

"So, who knows, maybe things will change; maybe attitudes will change."

"You want to push the boundaries back somewhat. Maybe you want to see yourself, and for other people to see you, in a different kind of light."

When he told his life story these last few days he did not exactly slide past the tough years. He brought them alive as strongly as the golf game which has, at all but the highest level of major play, always been marked by a reliable drive and a consistent refusal to accept defeat easily.

He said: "It was tough. Sandy and I were married right out of college in '82. Moved to Florida. I worked as a bag boy. I went on a mini tour out of Orlando. I made the mini tour on Mondays and Tuesdays every week and I did that for five years. We lived on $800 a month, we lived with my uncle in a little apartment, so I didn't have to pay rent. It was tough. We were scratching and clawing, trying to make ends meet. It makes me really appreciate where I am today."

As he prepared to fight off all challengers to his moment in the spring sunshine, Perry made one last assertion of self-belief. It was touching in its honesty. He said: "I still have some goals I think are attainable. I would certainly like to be the oldest player who ever won a major.

"So I have re-focused and re-dedicated. I'm ready to challenge. I am at an age maturity-wise where I can handle pressure but my physical skills are not as good as when I was in my 20s and 30s. I don't hit it as far and it seems my irons are not quite as crisp, but I'm a lot better thinker and I have more confidence and more belief. I believe it's going to happen."

This morning that belief lies among the pine needles where so many other dreams were put to their rest.

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