2009 Masters: Golf needs more Kenny Perrys

Augusta, Ga. | If they call you the nicest guy in professional golf – which they do if your name is Kenny Perry – then you are required to fulfill certain nice-guy obligations.

It’s almost as if you don’t have any choice. Your fate is predetermined, your destiny carved into a tree trunk.

Nice guys don’t necessarily finish last, but they often finish second, and your epitaph will state that you lost a playoff in the 2009 Masters after losing a playoff in the 1996 PGA Championship.

We could make a case that it was meant to be. A guy named Kenny is supposed to be a poet or philosopher, not a street fighter.

If you possessed that proverbial killer instinct, you would have finished off your competitors with that 4-foot birdie putt on No. 7 and that 5-foot birdie putt at No. 13. You would have chipped your way to a par on No. 17.

You would have stood on the 18th tee with a four-shot lead.

But then, driven by killer qualities of athletic survival and superiority, you would no longer be the nicest guy in professional golf.

Surrendering those three crucial shots at Nos. 7, 13 and 17, you were just one stroke ahead with one hole to play. Nice-guy territory this is not, and you looked uncomfortable.

Golf is a function of personality as much as it is a reflection of shotmaking ability. If your personality got in your way, you have to accept it.

I watched you lose this Masters playoff. I heard you say, “Great players make it happen; average players don’t.”

And I wanted to scream: “You are a great player, and much more.”

Professional golf is dying for emotion and candor.

It is filled with golfers unwilling to express themselves.

It is thirsting for golfers who are willing to explore their feelings.

Perry bravely opened his mind and heart at this Masters. He exposed his strengths and weaknesses. He didn’t win 13 PGA Tour events by being a wimp, but he clearly is a sensitive, thoughtful man.

“I’m not going to play pity person,” Perry said. “My mother has cancer, and my father isn’t doing too well.

If losing the Masters is the worst thing that happens to me, then I’ve got a pretty good life. I’ve got a great family, I live in a great place, and there are things that are more important than golf.”

Like his college scholarship fund at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn., funded by 5 percent of his prize money, that has grown to about $1.4 million.

Perry’s life reflects the strength and virtue of growing up in a small community. Franklin, Ky., is a town of about 8,000, and it doesn’t contain the mean streets where killer instincts are fostered.

I feel old, but I have learned one thing from the 35 Masters I have attended: There is life after losing the Masters.

“It would probably be the pinnacle of my career by far to win this golf tournament,” Perry said after Saturday’s third round. But then he added, “I didn’t have my stuff today,

for whatever reason. I was nervous on my first hole, and I hit a horrible drive right out of the gate. But I fought hard.”

Golf, for virtually every person who plays the game, is like this. It is a test of managing imperfect shots. The essence of golf is the struggle, and we are shaped by our courage and resolve.

On Sunday, Perry had his best stuff, at least until he made bogeys on the final two holes. He lost, but he never surrendered his grit and fortitude.

Give me a choice, and I’ll take an honest, forthright golfer every time. In the middle of the fairway on the playoff hole where he lost, Perry found mud on his golf ball. The ball swerved left in flight, but Perry made no excuses.

“It was the missed putts that cost me the tournament,” he said. “There never should have been a playoff.”

But there was, and Perry lost.

I watched silently, absorbing the magic of a rejuvenated Masters. Enough tee markers were moved up to guarantee a generous supply of birdies and eagles, and the Masters should be applauded for this decision.

I was here in 1986 when Jack Nicklaus won his final major at age 46, and I thought I felt the ground move from the cheering and yelling.

This time, the earth seemed to move again with the excitement. This is the Augusta National we know and love. This is the reunion we had in mind, a reunion with its past, a reconnection with the drama that has Masters stamped all over it.

And this, too, is the Kenny Perry we know and love, the nice guy whose fate is to lead and lose a few major championships.

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