June 2, 2008

That's The Ticket

Kenny Perry's win at the Memorial moves him to fifth in U.S. Ryder Cup points, likely earning him a 'home game' in September

The halfway cut of six over was the highest of the year, but Perry had no problems, sharing the lead after 36 holes.

The halfway cut of six over was the highest of the year, but Perry had no problems, sharing the lead after 36 holes.

With Tiger Woods still nursing a knee injury and his coveted lead in the FedEx Cup race dwindling, a thoroughly decent man who is fixing to join the living legend on America's Ryder Cup team this September won the Memorial last Sunday. Kenny Perry, desperate to play the biennial match against Europe in his native Kentucky, all but secured a spot on Captain Paul Azinger's roster by shooting a three-under-par 69 in the final round at Muirfield Village GC, for a four-day total of eight-under 280. Perry beat a foursome of contenders by two strokes, he never really missed a shot and now, maybe, he can exhale. If so, Perry will do that at the Stanford St. Jude Championship in Memphis, his seventh consecutive tournament.

"I've been home one day in six weeks, but I can't let my guard down," said Perry, who has arranged his schedule carefully to accommodate venues where he can "pile up them points" and fulfill his 2008 mission. He's not in the U.S. Open, and he did not attempt to qualify, but he's fifth on the Ryder Cup list now, which is fine. "I don't want to be a sympathy pick," Perry went on, mindful that Azinger will have four wildcard selections. "I saw where Paul said in the paper here that he wanted guys on his team to win tournaments. That caught my attention."

Azinger also mentioned that he wouldn't resist having a local guy or two on his squad to stir the galleries at Valhalla GC, about two hours from Perry's residence in Franklin. J.B. Holmes is a candidate who also would meet Azinger's perceived desire to accumulate a lineup of power hitters. Perry certainly isn't a young bomber, but at 47, he remains a superlative driver, plenty long and comprehensively straight. In any case, it is heartening to see a veteran such as Perry chase goals besides building a nest egg. He always has been out front for charitable and humanitarian causes and now, at $23 million and counting, his motor is running "because I want to play for my country at a home game."

Perry feels likewise about Muirfield, where he has triumphed three times -- 1991, his first of 10 wins on the PGA Tour, and again in 2003. "That ties me with Tiger Woods here," Perry noted. "And there I am, sitting next to Jack Nicklaus, the greatest golfer ever, telling me how great I played. It's mind-boggling for a low-life like me from a town of 8,000."

Perry's wife, Sandy, and their three children were all present for a victory -- another first -- as he broke from a five-way second-place scrum after 54 holes, three swings behind Mathew Goggin. Perry rewarded his family with what he described as one of the best rounds of his life, built on a 33 going out and a few nifty escapes thereafter.

Meanwhile, none of the four runners-up broke par on the back nine. Mike Weir chipped in on No. 9 to forge a brief tie with Perry at eight under, but bogeyed the next two holes and shot 71. Jerry Kelly, the expressive former hockey player, adhered to his theme for the week. He struck the ball better than he putted it and also joined Weir at 282. Justin Rose eagled No. 7 to seize the lead but dropped two shots the rest of the way for another 71.

Goggin's overnight margin evaporated when he recorded his second bogey at No. 4. He finished with 74, but not surprisingly, Perry touted the Aussie as someone who will win soon. "I'll pump him up next time I see him," said Perry. "We're all brothers out here." Perry has made 14 straight cuts, some of them hurtful. He finished T-15 at the Players, despite closing with 81. At the AT&T Classic playoff the next week his approach to the 73rd hole caromed off a tree into the water. But last Sunday there were no failed exams. He rescued par from a scary lie in a bunker beside the par-3 12th, chipped deftly from the thick stuff on No. 14 for par. His only bogey occurred at No. 17 after what longtime caddie Freddie Sanders said "was a perfect 7-iron that the wind knocked down" into a bunker. Moreover, Perry made all the putts he misjudged during Saturday's 74, after rain stole a bit of fire from the immaculate greens.

Jerry Kelly and Mathew Goggin

Perry said Valhalla owes him because he lost the 1996 PGA Championship there in sudden death to Mark Brooks. That's about as far as Perry goes when it comes to chirping. He's a God-fearing old-schooler who idolizes Nicklaus and thanked him again for building Muirfield. Some of Perry's contemporaries were not so complimentary, especially about those rough rakes, as Nicklaus labels them. Introduced a couple years ago, the gardening tools are intended to leave a rugged, furrowed, uneven terrain in bunkers. The rakes look like the dental chart of an old sportswriter -- they're missing a few teeth -- and, as sure as there was the usual 2½-hour Memorial rain delay Saturday, golfers used that down time to debate whether Nicklaus' rakish sense of humor conforms to tour standards. Strangely enough, the manual leaves room for interpretation on bunker mentality because the official skinny on sand reads merely that it be "not fluffed up or new." So, if it's furrowed, is it fluffed? The players were divided on that but not on the alleged length of the rough. Tournament folks insisted it was uniformly 4½ inches throughout, and all that got in the locker room was a laugh.

Thursday's first round was a tease. The greens were ferociously quick -- so much so that a few putts with a mind of their own rolled back into fairways -- but without significant breezes, 13 players shot in the 60s and 35 broke par. Goggin putted only nine times on his last nine holes in his Memorial debut for 65, one better than Perry and Kelly. Friday, Goggin raced out to 11 under with four birdies in his first five holes. Then the wind preceding a storm front invaded the area and a wild afternoon ensued. Goggin wound up with seven birdies but only a 72 -- he couldn't remember ever doing that -- yet shared the 36-hole lead with Perry, who eagled No. 15 with a pitch-and-run that ran about 40 yards into the hole. He had 71. The cut of six over was the highest this season on tour; only three scores in the 60s were posted and the average score for the round was also a season high of 75.856, even more than that bad-hair Sunday at the Players. As Steve Flesch noted when asked what precipitated the carnage, he replied, "It's a four-letter word, and he runs this tournament." That would be Jack, although most mortals still refer to him as Mr. Nicklaus.

Kelly took that high road in extolling the event. "It's the total tournament experience," he said. "This is the only place where I just love hanging out in the locker room. I love going through the buffet line. I love ordering. The chefs here take care of us better than anywhere else. And it starts with one man and that's Mr. Nicklaus, just making sure everything is taken care of for the players. Talk about being spoiled. Gosh, this place, we're spoiled rotten."

Even the caddies raved about upgraded gastronomic choices. Only when the golfers and their bagmen head for the course does the pampering cease. In compliance with the tour's mandate to standardize field sizes at invitationals, the Memorial's roster grew by 15 players from last year to reach the prescribed 120. There were a number of noteworthy absences, however, besides Woods and Adam Scott, neither of whom ever officially entered. Nicklaus expressed disappointment about Tiger, but said he had been kept informed by Mark Steinberg, Woods' agent. The days of handwritten letters and personal calls, rued Nicklaus, are over. "I don't think I've ever talked to Tiger on the telephone," said Jack, adding that he has saved a number of personal notes for posterity, but has yet to put an e-mail in a frame or any of his museums.

At week's start injured Vijay Singh withdrew, then Steve Stricker and Anthony Kim. There was some confusion about whether Ernie Els would partake. He showed, but probably wished he hadn't. He shot 73-78 and did a U-turn back toward the airport. After that particularly grim Friday afternoon, one tour veteran predicted more defections next year.

Whether Phil Mickelson will be among them is unclear, but when discussing tour setups thus far this season, he cited a half-dozen courses for excellence and fairness. Muirfield was nowhere to be heard. The left-hander, fresh off his Colonial victory, was probably less than fresh. He flew from Fort Worth to San Diego, then overnight Monday to New York for an outing, arriving in Ohio late Tuesday. After a T-20 at the Memorial, he was off to Chicago, New York again, then home to prep for the U.S. Open.

Memorial Winners chart

Nicklaus professes to be somewhat ambivalent about protecting "almighty par." He decries the arms race between players who hit the ball for miles and architects who stretch their designs to keep up. "You either leave par alone and let them go play," Nicklaus said, "or you've got to say, 'OK, let's go spend millions again.' That's why I did what I did with the rake. The intention is not to make bunkers a penalty, but to have it in a player's mind that it could be a penalty. You're going to think about whether you want to really challenge that bunker. I could have put more length on the course, but I didn't. I didn't think more length was necessary. The golf course is designed a certain way. Let's try to make them at least play the strategy of the golf course. The golf course is supposed to yield when you have good conditions. If a golf course won't yield to good play under the right conditions, then it's probably not a good golf course."

As for Nicklaus' game, it is virtually nonexistent. He said he shot his age, 68, in March. But Sunday before the Memorial, he went to the back tees at Muirfield and if he broke 80, "It was only because I cheated a little bit." The Golden Bear still performs in the Memorial pro-am. Less than a half-hour before his Wednesday tee time, Nicklaus appeared on the practice range flanked by instructor Jim Flick. Jack thinned a couple wedges, laughed at himself, then began to swing with a bit more elan. "That's enough," he said upon heading off to greet his group, with a final warning of sorts. "I don't think the guys will enjoy hitting the ball in the rough this week."

Perry, who missed one fairway Saturday and one Sunday, took that plan to heart. Before the tournament, he along with a couple dozen other potential Ryder Cup team members were measured for haberdashery, just in case. "I want to be in those clothes and was hoping it wouldn't be a waste of time," said Perry, who will be a good fit in September for his Kentucky and his country.