How Perry’s Masters quest was thwarted

Despite the disappointment, Kenny Perry refuses to let a missed chance define him.

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It took how long for him to piece together? The dream, that is. The major. The Masters. The ultimate cap to a distinguished career.

One could suggest that it was 19 1⁄2 hours, the approximate time he had spent navigating Augusta National since the start of the tournament.

Or was it 17 years, his Masters debut having come in 1992? Or 22, given that he first played as a PGA Tour member in 1987? Some would say 27, stretching to when he first turned pro.

By whichever method you choose, it was a long time coming. And that only serves to accentuate the stunning swiftness in which it all crumbled.

Kenny Perry was at the threshold of history April 12, 2009, the oldest to ever win a major championship. But not just any major. He was going to win the Masters.

Then, shock.

He did not win, and what will forever define the 73rd Masters is not the two-hole playoff won by Angel Cabrera, but the final three holes of regulation that sent emotions into a U-turn.

A year later, those emotions still resonate.

photo

Kenny Perry birdies the 12th hole in the final round of the 2009 Masters.

• • •

Three to play

When Perry matched Cabrera’s birdie at the par-5 15th, he pushed to 13 under – one ahead of Chad Campbell, who was up ahead, and two clear of Cabrera.

With a golden spring sun pouring down on Augusta National, the final pairing walked to the tee at the par-3 16th and storylines were taking shape.

For Jim Litke, a columnist for The Associated Press, it meant a conversation with Kenny Perry’s father, 85-year-old Ken, who was back home in Kentucky. “Looks like Kenny’s fixing to win the Masters,” Litke told the man who introduced his son to golf.

Those who thought any differently were in the great minority, but Charlie Epps was one who held out hope. Cabrera’s swing coach, Epps walked with his player’s Argentine friends and witnessed sad faces walking toward 16.

“I told them, ‘No, no, no. It’s not over,’ ” Epps said. “Kenny had not made a bogey, and it’s hard to play the final round of a major without making a bogey.”

To Perry’s caddie, Fred Sanders, Perry said he liked 7-iron. Sanders shook his head. “I like 8.” Then they watched Cabrera hit 8-iron about 18 feet past the hole. Perry told Sanders, “Looks to me like an 8-iron.”

As Perry settled in, Cabrera turned to his caddie, Ruben Yorio, and said, “He might make a hole-in-one here.”

• • •

No. 16: Redbud

Cabrera was 4 inches from being correct, because Perry’s high, right-to-left ball flight set up a kick-in birdie.

“He’s hit the shot of his life,”

Verne Lundquist told CBS viewers from his traditional Masters seat, the tower behind 16.

“I felt like Gary Player after I hit it,” Perry said. “I was chasing it.”

Knowing Perry was 14 under, Cabrera, at 11 under, looked at his birdie try with a clear mind.

“There wasn’t much to think about,” he said. “I had to make it if I had a chance to win.”

He did, and roars erupted. Cabrera was tied with Campbell, both two back. Pulling in tight to Yorio, the Argentine said, “It’s a birdie against a bogey. Two holes left; I still have a good chance.”

The players went to 17, a cue for Lundquist to descend the tower. His duties done, he was headed to the CBS compound, then toward Atlanta’s airport for a flight to Denver.

“I didn’t have any doubt that (Perry) was going to par the next two holes and win,” Lundquist said.

• • •

No. 17: Nandina

Steve Kirsche first met Kenny Perry in 1987 at what was then called the Canon Sammy Davis Jr. Greater Hartford Open. A 26-year-old rookie in need of all the assistance that could be offered, Perry graciously accepted Kirsche’s offer for housing, and he’s done so annually ever since.

On this day, Kirsche and his wife, Martha, were basking in an Augusta glow, Perry having turned the table. They were his house guests, and now, as he floated up the 17th fairway, Kirsche was emotional.

“I was crying – literally crying,” he said. “Kenny Perry won the Masters! It was huge.”

At the tee, “People were yelling, ‘Ryder Cup, Ryder Cup,’ ” Sanders said, a tribute to Perry’s inspirational performance seven months earlier at Valhalla in his native Kentucky.

But the vocal support quickly was hushed when Perry’s golf ball crashed into a tree down the right. Then, a collected sigh of relief. It had caromed into the middle of the fairway and required just a 6-iron approach. A good break he didn’t take advantage of.

“People were 20 deep,” Kirsche said. “I kept jumping up, trying to see. I said (the approach) went off the back of the green. Sandy (Perry’s wife) said, ‘No, it didn’t.’ But it did.”

Sanders sized up a delicate third shot to a hole cut at the front of the green and figured he knew what was coming. “All week, he had hit the 64-degree really well,” Sanders said.

But Perry pulled 8-iron. He’d go with the pitch ’n run.

“Probably the first time all year he chipped with the 8-iron,” Sanders said. “It came out hot. He got his hands into it.”

Inside the press building, Ken Perry was regaling Litke with stories when he caught a glimpse of his TV. “Uh-oh,” the father said. “Looks like Kenny is fixing to make a bogey here.”

It was Perry’s first since the 12th in Saturday’s third round, a stretch of 22 holes in a row, and Epps nodded to the Argentines who walked alongside. In Phoenix, Matt Rollins’ phone “exploded within minutes, with a dozen or more text messages, one of them from John Solheim.”

One of the Ping reps who works the PGA Tour, Rollins – who, like Epps, has lived in Argentina – is great friends with Cabrera. And what was he thinking as Cabrera walked to the 18th tee, trailing by just one?

“Please,” Rollins said, with a laugh, “don’t let his equipment come apart.”

• • •

No. 18: Holly

Each of the first three rounds, Perry had hit driver and taken aim at the massive bunker left. “I couldn’t get to it,” he said.

This time, he did.

photo

Kenny Perry watches as his par putt on the 18th hole misses during the final round of the 2009 Masters.

“Shows what adrenaline can do,” Perry said, and he referenced the 1996 PGA Championship (back then, on the playoff hole, he rifled his drive long and wide left and got beat). “Carbon copy of Valhalla.”

Rollins, watching on television, followed the drama at the 72nd hole and found himself screaming at the television. Cabrera looked nervous.

“Talk to him, Ruben, talk to him,” Rollins yelled. “Settle him down. Talk anything. Talk soccer.”

Perry chose 7-iron from the bunker and Sanders knew it was going to be difficult to hit the green. “Right is fine,” he said to himself. “Left is death.”

Perry went short left. It was Cabrera who went short right when he missed the green and when it came to their putts to save par, Cabrera was at 5 feet, Perry 15.

“I’ve seen a lot of guys make that putt,” Perry said. “I knew the putt, knew the line. That was probably the only disappointment of the week. That putt is what you remember for the rest of your life, because you have a putt to win the Masters. I didn’t give it a chance.”

• • •

The Epilogue

photo

Kenny Perry reacts after his chip shot to the 18th hole missed the cup during the first hole of sudden playoff at the 2009 Masters.

Barely was there time to collect emotions, because the three-way playoff began quickly. And while history will forever detail the events that decided things – Campbell’s sloppy bogey at the 18th, Cabrera’s miraculous tree shot and subsequent up-and-down to stay alive, Perry’s unfortunate mudball at No. 10 that sent his approach dead left and ended his quest – it is the final three holes of regulation that frame the 2009 Masters.

With the day engulfed by twilight, then darkness, those close to the story were left with contrasting emotions.

“It was the chance of a lifetime, and he deserved it,” Sanders said. The veteran caddie knew Perry would handle it well, “but it killed me to see his family crying; that broke my heart.”

Earlier that morning, Epps had taken Cabrera to Kroger, a local supermarket. “He wanted to buy some food,” Epps said. “I said, ‘What about beer?’ Angel said, ‘Buy some beer. Lots of beer. We will celebrate, no matter what.’ ”

The Cabrera entourage did, too, quite festively and quite deservedly.

Well into the party, Cabrera called Rollins and said, “Where are you? Come on over.” Explaining that he was in Phoenix, Rollins laughed when the Masters champion said, “Fly in. I’ll send a plane over.”

At another house in town, it was a different story. As the Kirsches and Perry’s children mingled, a sense of disappointment hung in the air. It grew even more muted when Perry entered the house.

“But he wanted nothing to do with that,” Steve Kirsche said. “It was more important for him to be a dad to his girls (Lesslye and Lindsey) and his son (Justin), to show them things were OK. Then he said to me, ‘Come on, I’m going to beat you tonight,’ and we played penny-a-point gin into the night.”

Whenever the TV highlights showed clips of Perry handling the loss with class, the house erupted in applause.

“The best of times, the worst of times,” Kirsche said. “(Perry) doesn’t have the green jacket, but he won the Masters. And he won it long after the game was over.”

Sleep came easy that night for the 48-year-old.

“It’s easy to lay your head on that pillow at night when you know you did everything possible to win a golf tournament,” Perry said. “But it just didn’t happen.”

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