This is the year golf went to hell in a shrimp boat. That's
right. Golf has been so whacked in 2003 that even the cliches
have gone terribly wrong, and no, we're not making a mountain
out of a manhole. ¬∂ How crazy was the first half of the season?
When it concluded with last week's Memorial, in Dublin, Ohio,
the most dominant player on the planet turned out to be Kenny
Perry, a guy who lives in the small Kentucky town of Franklin
(pop. 8,000), plays mostly at the quaint public track he built
there (6,574-yard Country Creek) and usually wears wildly
patterned Tabasco golf shirts that, if they were gift-wrap
paper, wouldn't match any of Martha Stewart's bows. Perry, who
has a thing for muscle cars, has blown the doors off the PGA
Who saw him coming? Two weeks ago, at the Bank of Annika
Colonial, Perry went 64-61 in successive rounds to build an
eight-shot lead after 54 holes, then laughed all the way to the
ATM with an impressive 19-under-par 261 and a six-shot victory.
At Muirfield Village, Perry pressed rewind and did it again. Yes,
he faltered a bit at the finish and beat Lee Janzen by only two
strokes, but it really wasn't that close. Perry had a six-shot
lead on Sunday after an impeccable front-nine 32, then simply
tried not to do anything silly, like juggling chain saws, on the
"Other than the last six holes, Kenny Perry played near-perfect
golf," said Janzen, who was paired with him on Sunday. "He's on a
roll. It's great to watch a guy play as if there is nothing in
his way. That's where I want to be."
Perry is the shocker of 2003, his rise even more surprising than
the showdown between Mike Weir and Len Mattiace at the Masters.
Before the Colonial, Perry, 42, had only four wins in 17 years on
Tour. Now he has blown away the field two weeks in a row. Early
on the final nine at Muirfield, before he began protecting his
lead by playing the golf equivalent of a prevent defense, Perry
was at 17 under and had only a handful of pursuers within 10
shots. "I played with him at Colonial," said Jim Furyk, "and what
he's done these two weeks is really impressive. Other than Tiger,
we haven't had someone dominate like this in a long time." Asked
to explain his performance, Perry shrugged and said, "I don't
think you can. It was just my time."
Perry's star turn fits two unusual trends in 2003. One is the
Tour's new frequent-winner program. Perry joined Ernie Els and
Vijay Singh as double winners, right behind Weir, Davis Love III
and Tiger Woods, who have three victories each. Second, some of
the best play this year has been by the old guys.
Last year, there were a record 18 first-time winners on Tour, and
this new wave of young guns seemed to signal a changing of the
guard. Sorry about that premature emasculation. At the midway
point of this season the scorecard reads: fortysomething winners
4 (Fred Couples, Scott Hoch, Perry and Singh); twentysomething
winners 2 (Ben Crane and Woods). Toss in the strong showings of
Jay Haas (49), who is 10th on the money list; Mark Calcavecchia
(42), who was ninth at the Memorial; Jeff Sluman (45); and Bob
Tway (44), and the trend is clear. The question is, What happened?
"You have to hit it a certain distance to be able to compete,"
says 30-year-old Stewart Cink, sixth at the Memorial. "The new
technology is helping these guys generate enough length. The
other thing is, the rise in the purses has gotten a lot of guys'
attention. Guys in their mid-40s may think, I can make more in
one good year than I made in all of the '80s and '90s."
The Tiger effect can't be discounted either. He has reenergized
some of the older players, who have upgraded their games--and
their fitness levels. (No matter the veterans' success, a healthy
respect for Woods remains. "The last time guys started saying,
'What's wrong with Tiger?' he won like eight in a row," says
Janzen. "So don't make him mad. Leave him alone.")
Sluman offers a third theory. "Hale Irwin has had as big an
impact as anyone," he says. "He's 58 and still the best player in
senior golf. I look at Hale and say, 'Gosh, my game shouldn't
suddenly go in the tank.' This is what you can do if you work.
There aren't many guys in better shape than Hale. It wasn't so
much Tiger's raising the bar as it was Hale's raising the bar."
Perry has raised the bar as well as his profile. "The story of my
life is that I've flown under the radar," he says. "I'm not a
media star. I was a good golfer but never a superstar. My dad
still says to this day, 'You're as good as they are.' I never
really believed it, but I'm competitive."
Perry is relatively long off the tee (he averaged 281 yards last
week, 11th in the field), a terrific iron player (sixth on Tour
in greens hit in regulation last year) and a streaky putter. The
spark the last two weeks was a switch back to his old Odyssey
putter after he had practiced with a belly putter, which helped
him regain his stroke. Then, during the second round of the
Colonial, he made a conscious effort to slow down his swing. His
timing returned, and suddenly he was hitting the ball high--his
natural shot is a high draw--and soft and the right distance.
This is not the time in Perry's life when you'd expect a surge.
He has a daughter, Lesslye, in college, and a son, Justin, and a
daughter, Lindsey, in high school, yet he has been more focused
on his game than ever. "I used to feel guilty being on Tour
because my family wanted me home," Perry says. "Now I'm pushing
harder and trying to enjoy what few years I have left."
He'll be one of the favorites at next week's U.S. Open, certainly
not a role he was expecting.
At the Colonial and the Memorial, neither were we, and the same
can pretty much be said about the rest of the year too.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY FRED VUICH HITTING THE JACKPOT By winning the Colonial and the Memorial, Perry earned $1.8 million and jumped to fifth on the money list.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY FRED VUICH GOOD ADVICE Even though older players have dominated, Janzen, the Memorial runner-up, says to keep an eye on Tiger.
"My dad still says to this day, 'You're as good as they are,'"
Perry says. "I never really believed it."