Commentary

Respect Perry for sticking to his guns

Originally Published: July 13, 2008
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

Kenny Perry, arguably the best player on the PGA Tour right now, could be doing what I'm doing today: schlepping to the airport, shuffling through the Space Mountain-long security lines, getting wedged into a plane, flying 7 hours and 35 minutes to Manchester, England, renting a car the size of a watermelon slice, driving 48½ terrifying miles to Royal Birkdale on the left side of the road and doing it from our passenger's side, and then checking in to my non-air-conditioned hotel.

At least there's the lukewarm beer and the cucumber sandwiches.

Love makes you do funny things, and I've always had a crush on the British Open, the Claret Jug and the moonscape. In fact, I'd marry any one of the four majors. Not Perry -- he and the majors are barely speaking to each other.

Proof? The very nice people at the John Deere Classic, where Perry won Sunday for his third victory in his last five starts, offered him a leather-upholstered, first-class seat on a nonstop Sunday night flight to Manchester. He'd drive his courtesy car to the Quad City International Airport, have his luggage and clubs loaded directly on the same 767 charter jet used by the Dallas Mavericks, be whisked through prearranged security and customs screening, get tucked into his comfy seat with the individual DVD player, eat two full meals, recline and sleep. Once in England, he'd be escorted to a private customs area, where he'd be greeted shortly thereafter by a driver who would take him directly to Royal Birkdale.

The whole thing would have cost Perry a $1,000 donation to the John Deere Classic charity. It was the deal of the decade.

Perry took a pass. Just like he took a pass on the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines. That means he hasn't played in any of the three majors this year, two of them on purpose.

"I was going to have to miss Milwaukee [the U.S. Bank Championship], which is a tournament I've won," Perry told a small gathering of reporters earlier in the week at the John Deere Classic in Silvis, Ill. "I've had eight top-10 finishes there."

Is that right? Eight top-10 finishes in Milwaukee. Wow. Well, then I can certainly understand why you'd stiff the world's oldest major, and a Birkdale course where Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino, Tom Watson and Johnny Miller won championships. And I'm just spitballing here, but maybe you've had those eight top-10s because, you know, the world's best players were busy getting ready for the British Open instead of playing in Milwaukee!

[+] EnlargeKenny Perry
Jeff Hanisch/Getty ImagesKenny Perry has played well in Milwaukee, including winning this trophy back in 2003. Why has he played so well there? Oh, that's because at the same time he's in the land of cheese, all the best players are busy getting ready for the British Open!

"The British Open is a great tournament, don't get me wrong," the 47-year-old Perry said. "If you win a major, everybody looks at all the people in the world when they win majors. … That is the ultimate.

"But at this stage in my career, I fought all that for 22 years. In the past I've always tried to win a major and I couldn't do it. Now I don't really worry too much about it anymore. I don't care too much about winning a major. I would love to, don't get me wrong. I've got a chance to play in the PGA [Championship] coming up, and I'll play all the majors next year. So it may happen."

He almost won a major. Once. In 1996, he was in the clubhouse (actually, the CBS booth) with a 1-stroke lead in the PGA Championship at Valhalla Golf Club. But then Mark Brooks birdied the 18th hole to force a playoff, which Brooks won with another birdie on the same hole. It took Perry 4 strokes just to get on the green.

So little by little, Perry started ditching the majors. In Godfather-speak, it was nothing personal, just business. He didn't like them, and they didn't like him back (40 majors, 11 missed cuts, five top-10s, zero wins).

Instead, on Jan. 1, 2008, to be exact, Perry made a deal with himself. Despite being 94th in the world and having 30 American players ranked ahead of him, he wrote down a single golf goal. He still has the sheet of paper in the bedroom of his home in Franklin, Ky.

Make the USA Ryder Cup team.

"That was it," Perry said. "I wrote it down, and you know what? I made it happen."

Perry tailored his schedule to include courses and tournaments he loved. Heavy on the Colonial and the Memorial. Light on the USGA and Royal & Ancient.

It worked. Perry has won three times, finished second and third, made 18 of 19 cuts, earned more than $4.33 million, climbed to second in the FedEx Cup standings, reached 16th in the world rankings and, ta-da, is now a shoo-in for a spot on the U.S. Ryder Cup team.

And oh, by the way, he's been ripped a new one.

"Well, you know what, I'm not going to lie; it kind of bothers me a little bit," Perry said. "But you know what? I'm an independent contractor. I can do whatever I want, and I like that. … If [the critics] don't like it, that's fine. They can say all they want to."

I thought about ripping him, too. I mean, why would I want a guy on my U.S. team who didn't try qualifying for the U.S. Open, and who would rather be at Brown Deer than Birkdale? Why would I trust a guy whose motto apparently is: When the going gets tough, Kenny Perry gets going to Milwaukee?

Here's why:

"It's more important for him to make the [U.S.] team than to win the U.S. Open," says 2006 Ryder Cup captain Tom Lehman, who will be on the charter jet to Manchester. "It's more important to him to make the team than win the British Open. So if I'm the captain of the Ryder Cup team, I'd feel pretty damn good about that. … If I was Paul [Azinger, the 2008 U.S. Ryder Cup captain], and it meant that much to [Perry] to make the team and was more important than a major, I'm thinking, 'This guy wants to play.'"

Perry wants to play. He just didn't want to play at the longest U.S. Open track in history, or at a Birkdale course where he missed the cut in 1991. Does it make him a golf wimp?

"A little unusual," said Sean O'Hair, who is also on the charter. "I wouldn't do it myself, but I respect what he's doing."

"Maybe unorthodox, but positive," Lehman said.

I don't understand skipping majors, but I respect Perry for telling the rest of us to stick it -- and then winning tournaments and a Ryder Cup roster spot on his own terms.

"When people say negative comments about me, it actually makes me play better," he said.

This is personal to Perry. He isn't above holding a grudge, especially against Valhalla -- he said he has "some unfinished business there." That's where the Ryder Cup will be played in September.

"Well, 20 years ago it was all about winning for me, winning everything and anything I could get into," Perry said. "That was it. I was out there to do the best I could. And now at this stage in my career, it's just enjoying the road. It's enjoying the ride."

Just not a plane ride to England.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.

Gene Wojciechowski | email

Columnist / College Football reporter