By Rex Hoggard
For the third day in a row, Kenny Perry woke before dawn March 19 and schlepped his way to Bay Hill Resort and Lodge.
Nonstop rain had washed out the opening round of the Bay Hill Invitational, turning Arnie’s annual soirée into a NASCAR race of 18-hole sprints followed by 20-minute pit stops before heading back out onto the oval.
Perry went out into the cool, central Florida morning three shots back Saturday. By the time his 44-year-old frame had finished 29 holes he was aching, ready for bed and one shot ahead of Stephen Ames.
“I’m definitely not a spring chicken out here anymore,” Perry said after his Saturday marathon.
Maybe not, but the father of three with slightly slumping shoulders is becoming something of a spring specialist. His two-stroke victory over Vijay Singh and Graeme McDowell was his eighth on Tour and his fifth in the spring.
Spring Training, March Madness, blooming flowers and Kenny Perry.
And the calendar wasn’t the only thing Perry had going for him.
Beefed-up Bay Hill was doing its best U.S. Open impersonation with pinched fairways and 5 inches of rough that favored the calm and the straight. Few were as consistent or composed as Perry (fourth
in fairways hit and first in greens in regulation).
“The rough was so long this week that you really had to hit the fairway,” said 1995 U.S. Open champion Corey Pavin. “It was almost U.S. Open-type rough in places where you had to chip it out or advance it 100 yards.”
The rough produced a leaderboard that looked a lot like an American championship as well, with renowned Open tacticians Retief Goosen, Jeff Maggert and Pavin moving in and out of contention.
An Open vibe hung in the air like a 9-iron approach, complete with a Saturday cameo from U.S. Golf Association president Fred Ridley and an Open-like, early-week power pairing of Tiger Woods, Ernie Els and Goosen.
The marquee grouping drew most of the early attention with Woods and Els within three shots of the lead after the first 18 holes. By the time officials had orchestrated three patchwork rounds, however, Woods and Els were well out of the hunt, and Goosen – who considered withdrawing after an opening 78 – was the only member of the power trio within a 3-wood of Perry.
Instead of flash, Bay Hill got unflappable. Through three rounds, Perry missed only five of 42 fairways and nine of 54 greens. Steady is signature Perry, but at Bay Hill the Kentucky native was nearly flawless.
“I don’t want to say the guy’s ‘matured,’ because he’s 44,” said Perry’s caddie, Andy Lano. “But he’s totally comfortable out there. He’s gotten over letting stuff bother him.”
After three relatively stress-free rounds, there was plenty to bother Perry when the tournament finally headed into its final 18 holes Sunday afternoon.
Paired with Singh, Perry recorded his first bogey in 22 holes at No. 1, and he had to birdie three of four holes in the middle of his round to keep the Fijian at bay.
“(Singh) has no fear,” said Perry, who closed with 70 for a 12-under 276 total and $900,000 payday. “He attacks the pin on just about every hole.”
It was the final three holes, however, that shattered the mundane nature of Perry’s fairways and greens clinic. Perry’s par at the reachable par-5 16th allowed Singh, who made birdie, to pull within one shot, and his missed 8-footer for par at No. 17 dropped him back into a tie at 12 under.
But Singh – famous for his steely stare – blinked, sending his 174-yard approach into the final hole bouncing off the rocks and into the lake fronting the green. He took double bogey, his first miscue in 25 holes, for a final-round 69, then headed home to Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., to prepare for his annual Players Championship beach party.
“It was a good shot, I just hit the wrong club. The wind switched on me,” Singh said.
Singh may have lost the title but he won the crown, retaking the No. 1 spot from Woods in the Official World Golf Ranking. That, however, was little consolation for Singh, whose fortunes swung for the second consecutive week by a matter of inches on the final hole.
“Big deal (taking over the No. 1 spot). I lost the golf tournament,” said Singh, who lipped out a “gimme” putt on the second extra hole to hand Padraig Harrington the Honda Classic title a week earlier.
Perry’s victory ended a 20-month title drought and moved him within one crown (Byron Nelson Championship) of a rare legends sweep – Colonial (Hogan), Memorial (Nicklaus) and Bay Hill (Palmer). It also gave Perry a reason to be optimistic heading into the season’s first major next month at Augusta National.
“I really want to make something happen at Augusta,” said Perry, who hasn’t finished higher than 39th in his past five trips to the Masters. “That course has beat me up. I’ve never played very well there for whatever reason.”
After holding off the World No. 1 on a U.S. Open-type course, Perry has reason to believe this could be his year.
– Jeff Babineau contributed