James Lawton: Perry accepts he'll never rank among golf's greats

You thought you had seen everything any one golf tournament could bestow when they put the Green Jacket on Angel Cabrera. But you hadn't, not until you saw Kenny Perry beneath a stand of pine trees.

Defeat is never a welcome companion and it could not be said that the 48-year-old from Kentucky, who a few minutes earlier had been so close to becoming the oldest man ever to win a major title, was embracing it easily.

No, he didn't embrace it but he accepted its meaning, to both himself and the wider world, in a way that will surely prove as unforgettable as any of the smoke and fire brought to the last day of the 73rd Masters by Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods.

Perry thought that for one day of his life at least he could withstand that kind of flaming virtuosity and the leader board confirmed his optimism. Indeed, until his misadventures on the 17th and 18th holes it seemed on the point of announcing his enshrinement. But then it gave him a far bleaker message. It said that in golf there is a line that such as the Tiger and Mickelson can stroll past as though it isn't there, and that someone like Cabrera, who already had the notch of the US Open on his belt, on the best of his days can also negotiate – but Kenny Perry couldn't.

Perry knew as well as anyone on the grounds of the darkening golf course that at the most important competitive moment of his career he had choked, profoundly and, when his chip at the 17th scuttled too quickly across the green, it indeed seemed it was probably irrevocable.

So now, beneath the pines illuminated by the TV cameras, he had to deal with a fact that would never leave him whenever he handled a golf club. As he did so, with unforced humility and a dignity that seemed to grow with every carefully measured phrase, it was almost possible to feel less badly for him in the loss of the Green Jacket that had seemed so likely to be his.

Yes, he lost the jacket and all the money and the celebrity that go with it, but Perry and his family will never want for a dollar – and, anyway, what price can you put on a man re-asserting his humanity at the kind of moment which has down the years destroyed, whether they know it or not, the lives of so many of his co-workers.

"I had so many people pulling for me out there, so you know I have a lot of memories. It just seems that when I get down to these deals [he lost in a play-off for the US PGA title on his home course, Valhalla, 13 years ago] I can't seem to execute.

"Great players make it happen, and your average players don't. And that's the way it is."

There was no such reflection, naturally, from the man who had just proved that, despite the brevity of his rehabilitation from the restructuring of his wounded knee, his status as arguably the greatest player of all time remains as sure as the prospect of a Georgian sunrise. "The fact is," said the Tiger, "I nearly won the tournament with a band-aid swing." No time for commiserations, here, no toying with the intangibles of form and fate. No, there was none of that, just the singular view of golf's most singular man.

Had it widened slightly, there might have been room for the view that, though Perry's dénouement was terribly harsh on his spirit, it did come after 16 holes of quite remarkable nerve and application. When Perry (right) choked the effect could only be more dramatic because of what had gone before.

It left him with his last and perhaps most onerous challenge. He had to reach into his bag for the kind of perspective that might fight off the demons that sped through pines like so many bats.

He went on: "I just didn't get the job done again and I'll look back the rest of my life saying what could have been, but I'm not really going to go there because if this is the worst thing that happens in my life, my life's pretty good. It really is.

"I got my mom struggling with cancer, my dad's struggling. I got a lot of people who are hurting right now and here I am playing golf for a living and having the time of my life. I'm not going to play pity person on me. And you know what? I'm going to enjoy it. I really am. I fought hard and I was proud of the way I hung in there.

"I have to see the whole situation. I have to accept that the average player doesn't get it done ... and that I'm an average player. You see Tiger make a putt, see all the big stars make it happen. That's why they are where they are and we're down here.

"So I had a good career, 13 wins. So it's more than average in that way. I won some good tournaments. But when you look back at the majors and history, people look back at what you do in the majors. And to be quite honest, I never had a lot of great majors. I had my chances to win two but other than that I had a third at an Open [US] and a top 10 at the British, but nothing great."

Perry was asked how many times he will replay the last few holes of Sunday's approaching dusk. "Look," he said as one of his daughters wept silently, "I'm all right. I'm sure I'll get in situations where I'll think about it at times but I'm pretty good. I have a short memory. I always have. And I really try not to dwell in the past because my life is good now. Sure, there will be heartache, but everyone has a little of that.

"What I can say is that it has been a special week and that, besides losing, there are things I will be pleased to remember. It's so neat to get in the moment and in the heat, get in the hunt, and it's really to say, 'You know what? I was there, I did it, I was good enough to win, but I didn't win.' So maybe this will help me down the road, maybe not.

"I know it will do me no good to think, 'I could have had the Green Jacket.' It's no use thinking about it. I don't have the jacket. I lost. I shook Angel's hand. He did great. We were battling all day out there, and I kept staying ahead of him, and that was amazing. What happened was he hit the quality shots coming in that you need to hit to win and I didn't do it."

So did that make Angel Cabrera a great player? "Yes," said Perry. "He's won two majors."

It was only when he said that, with an accompanying sigh, did you realise how well and how bravely Kenny Perry had played his most difficult lie.