Commentary

Perry lets Masters title slip away

Originally Published: April 12, 2009
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- The green jacket would have looked nice on Kenny Perry. You could picture him slipping his arms, one by one, into the famous coat, wearing it proudly, forever having a place in the Champions Locker Room at Augusta National.

Sandy Perry let those thoughts flash through her mind as the roars reverberated through the Georgia pines early Sunday evening, her husband two holes away from a golfing feat for the ages.

When his tee shot at the par-3 16th flew majestically toward the hole and came within inches of rolling in for an ace, who among us didn't think that Kenny Perry, 48, was going to become the oldest major champion in history?

"That was very exciting," Sandy Perry said after darkness had set in -- both literally and figuratively. "I tried not to get ahead of myself, but I did. I thought ahead, even though I tried very hard to stay in the moment."

Fred Sanders had the same problem. Perry's caddie for most of the past decade, Sanders knew that 8-iron shot over the water to the crucial 16th was money, just as Perry did -- who walked after it, knowing the ball would be close.

"It's over. I'm thinking it's over with a 2-shot lead and two holes to go," Sanders said. "Hit two drives down the fairway, just as we did all day."

Problem is, Perry didn't, leading to two mind-numbing bogeys, a sudden-death playoff with Angel Cabrera and Chad Campbell, and a very painful defeat.

Perry said afterward that he knew what he faced, two difficult closing holes -- although you wonder if he was trying to convince himself of that after the fact.

"It just seems like when I get down to those deals, I can't seem to execute," Perry said. "Great players make it happen, and your average players don't. And so that's the way it is. I just didn't get the job done again, and I'll look back the rest of my life saying what could have been."

Perry then stopped himself, realizing there are worse things than losing a golf tournament. His mom, Mildred, has cancer. His dad, Ken, is 85 years old, Kenny's biggest fan and supporter, and trying to look after his wife.

His kids, Lesslye, 24, Justin, 23 and Lindsey, 20, were all here, devastated, speechless.

"I got a lot of people hurting right now," Perry said.

No doubt.

Perry has played better than anyone over the past year. In that time, he has won four tournaments and lost two in playoffs. He made the U.S. Ryder Cup team last year despite not earning a penny in any of the major championships and then was one of the stars of the victorious squad in his home state of Kentucky.

That victory occurred at the place of his other playoff loss in a major championship, the 1996 PGA Championship where Perry seemingly had it won, then saw Mark Brooks tie him as he sat in the television tower. Perry made a mess of the 18th hole in a playoff and has forever second-guessed himself.

Not so much this time, and Perry tried to remain positive, despite the difficulty in doing so. Even after his loss, Perry moved up to No. 6 in the world, his highest ranking ever.

"I'm not going to feel sorry," Perry said. "If this is the worst thing that happens to me, I can live with it. I really can. Great players get it done, and Angel got it done. This is his second major he's won, and I've blown two, but that's the only two I've had chances of winning."

No knock on Cabrera, but you can certainly put him among the game's most unheralded two-time major champions. He now has a grand total of five victories on the European Tour, two of them majors.

The guy shanked a shot Sunday on the eighth hole, for goodness sake, and still won the Masters. He sliced his tee shot in the woods on the first playoff hole, then tried to hit an approach through a narrow opening in the trees and somehow saw it carom off to the left into the fairway.

From there, Cabrera got up and down from 114 yards for par, sending the playoff to a second hole, the 10th, where Perry's approach hooked left because there was mud on his ball.

All Cabrera had to do was put it on the green and take two putts for victory.

It wasn't exactly the kind of luck that countryman Roberto De Vicenzo had 41 years ago when a scorecard error cost him his shot at a green jacket.

"When they put the green jacket on I had goose bumps," Cabrera said via an interpreter. "I was shaking. I can't even explain what was going through my body. ... You need luck sometimes in this game."

Cabrera won the U.S. Open two years ago at Oakmont and had done virtually nothing since. The 39-year-old Argentine had slipped to 69th in the world and had but one top-10 on the PGA Tour last year. On the European Tour, he had a single top-10 finish as well. This year, Cabrera had missed the cut at both Bay Hill and Houston coming into the Masters. He had no top-five finishes in more than a year.

But tied for the lead with Perry heading into the final round, Cabrera stayed calm under duress. He played the last eight holes in 3-under-par and never gave up despite trailing Perry by two strokes -- also making a birdie at the 16th hole.

And then Cabrera parred in while Perry imploded, made his own miraculous par at the first playoff hole and let Perry make the mistake at the next one.

It was De Vicenzo who two years ago gave Cabrera a picture of a green jacket after returning to Argentina following his U.S. Open victory. The great champion told him to go for it, and Cabrera did.

While Cabrera was being fitted for the very jacket that almost everyone thought Perry had won, Sandy Perry stood outside in the darkness, trying to put a positive spin on the proceedings.

"I'm better after hearing him speak," she said of her husband. "Because he was still positive. I don't think he is going to beat himself up like he did after Valhalla. It was a wonderful week. We truly believed. I was never nervous. But after hearing him speak, I don't think he was just saying that to sound good to you guys. I think he's going to be fine."

With Kenny and Sandy Perry's kids trying to console each other a few steps away, it was hard not to wonder if she will be right.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com