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Late Bloomers

Vijay Singh led the way but in 2009 Kenny Perry and Steve Stricker showed up the PGA Tour’s youngsters
Jeff Williams
From the Print Edition:
Phil Ivey, March/April 2010

(continued from page 2)

From hitting balls from a trailer, Steve Stricker made himself competitive with Tiger Woods, who he now calls a friend. After winning the Northern Trust Open in February, Stricker jumped to No. 2 in the world rankings, ahead of Phil Mickelson and just behind Woods. Stricker's success means that he is more likely to be paired with Woods in tournaments. But he doesn't compare himself to him.

"I don't look at me competing against him out there," said Stricker. "I've gotten away from that, and that's why I think I'm playing a little bit better when I do play with him because I just don't try to compare to what he's doing. I just try to go about my own business, talk with him, have fun with him. That relaxes me, too. Being a friend to him and enjoying being out there with him has helped me play better with him."

If Stricker's success came out of a trailer in the winter, Perry's came from a member of the Bent Pine Club in Vero Beach, Florida. But first, a look at his career.

Like Stricker, Perry is a country boy, from Franklin, Kentucky. The beginning of his PGA Tour career was sponsored by local residents who he repaid in full. He's become a pillar of his community, owns a public golf course there, and donates time and money to local projects including a college scholarship fund.

When he qualified for the Tour in 1985, he wasn't a ballyhooed player and it took him a while to find his legs. He got his first PGA Tour win, and a substantial one, at Jack Nicklaus' Memorial Tournament in 1991 and won twice again in the 1990s.

But publicly, those wins took a back seat to a glaring loss, one in which he took an unhealthy amount of smug criticism. At the 1996 PGA Championship at Valhalla, outside of Louisville, Perry was the local favorite, the hometown boy that half of the enormous galleries seemed to be following on any given hole, and he gave them a show. Perry finished the final round atop the leaderboard but with several groups still to finish. Instead of going to the range to stay loose and sharp, he went to the CBS television booth to commiserate and from there watched Mark Brooks tie him to set up a play-off, which he lost.

That event, and that criticism, seemed to define Perry's career until he won again in 2001 and then had a breakout season in 2003 with three victories. It was the 2008 season, with three more victories, that really sent Perry, then 48 years old, soaring toward the top of the player rankings, and a lot of it had to do with a putter (a PING G2i Craz-E mallet style) that was handed to him by Paul Hargarten, a club member at Bent Pine, in the off-season before the start of the 2008 campaign.

"How can you explain that," said Perry. "A guy comes up and hands you a putter, says it's going to help you. He just really believed in his heart this putter's really going to help you. It had a grip on it that looked like it had been on there for 20 years. It was dry-rotted. It was awful. It was hilarious. I grabbed it and threw it into the trunk of my car. Then I was putting bad and I grabbed it and the next thing you know, I'm winning golf tournaments. I've won five times with that putter, played in the Ryder Cup with it."

He has a further explanation for his stellar play. "I think a lot of it is due to maturity," he says. "My kids are grown and gone now. My oldest is married, my son's caddying for me, my youngest is a senior at SMU. So it's just Sandy and me, my wife. I've had more time to focus on my golf when I'm at home. I've actually spent more time practicing and not chasing the kids around and kind of rededicated myself in the 2000s and it's paid off."

So late in his career, Perry started to set goals. It went beyond making the Tour, making cuts, winning tournaments. In 2008, when he won three times, his goal was to make the Ryder Cup team, with the competition being back at Valhalla, the scene of his infamous PGA loss. He went about it his way, too, enduring criticism for not playing in the U.S. or British Opens in 2008, venues that he did not think he would do well at and would not accumulate the valuable Ryder Cup points.

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