James Kenneth Perry skipped right over the childhood fantasy jobs of cowboy, policeman, and astronaut when asked what he wanted to be when he grew up. At age 7, the serious, determined child told his father precisely what he was going to do. “I am going to play on the PGA Tour,” not a whisper of doubt in his voice.
And against steep odds, Kenny Perry is doing precisely what he said he would.
Perry has played on the PGA Tour since 1986, a remarkable feat in itself, and he has won 14 PGA Tour tournaments. He tied for second last year in arguably the most prestigious golf tournament of all, the Masters. He was instrumental in bringing the Ryder Cup back to the U.S. in 2008, the accomplishment he savors most. His career earnings top $30 million.
It’s heady stuff, but the first thing you notice about Perry is not the celebrity, but that despite the celebrity he has somehow remained James Kenneth Perry, a small-town boy who prefers family to fame, and home to the high life that can easily be found on the road.
“He’s a real person, genuine, honest, an everyday guy,” answers Perry when asked what he would want people to know about him. “I am a blue-collar guy. I’ve never taken anything for granted and am still the same guy I was when I was a young kid…I’m just your everyday Joe, just a hard-working guy.”
Everyday Joes don’t usually need a manager to handle the constant stream of media requests each month and volumes of fan mail. On average, Perry receives 20-30 media requests for interviews. Still, Perry’s lack of pretention can quickly convince you that he is mainly the son of Ken and the late Mildred Perry; a father of three; a graduate of Western Kentucky University.
The early years
Perhaps Perry remembers his humble beginnings as a professional golfer.
Before he made the PGA Tour, Perry played on the mini tours, golf’s equivalent of baseball’s minor leagues—unglamorous, low-paying tournaments that require players to jaunt about the country and pay for entry fees on their own nickel. A group of about 20 individuals sponsored Perry through these early days and through three tries at Q-school (qualifying school).
It was a bumpy start for a young man accustomed to winning tournament after tournament as a junior player. Like all kids, Perry also wanted to please his father, and his dad had dreamed of playing on the PGA Tour himself.
Perry failed to earn his tour card four times. The first time he missed by one stroke. The next year his wife, Sandy, went into labor during the fourth round. That left him back on the mini tours battling it out with all the other PGA wannabes.
“In 1985, I went to Ron Ferguson, an elder at my church,” he recalls. “I was broke and had two kids. I told him I needed to borrow money to go to Q-school one more time. He got me $5,000.”
The elder attached a request to the money. If Perry made it, rather than repay the money, he was to give a percentage of his winnings back to David Lipscomb University (now Lipscomb University), a Christian school in Nashville, Tennessee. Perry, a devout Christian, agreed.
That agreement has translated into $1.5 million and counting today. The money has already paid for 40 students to attend Lipscomb. After his first big check on tour—$55,000 at the Panasonic Las Vegas Invitational in 1987—Perry also repaid all of the money his original sponsors gave him, although he was not legally required to do so.
The big wins
Perry’s first win on tour came in 1991 at the Memorial Tournament. Two more wins followed in the mid-1990s, another in 2001, and three in 2003, including a second Memorial. In 2005, Perry won at the Bay Hill Invitational and the Bank of America Colonial.
In 2008, Perry had three PGA Tour victories—his third Memorial Tournament, the Buick Open, and the John Deere Classic. Although not major tournaments, the wins helped him rack up points to earn his way onto the Ryder Cup team, the America versus Europe tournament, for bragging rights and country pride. Perry was criticized for not playing in the majors to qualify for the Ryder Cup.
Team USA won, ending the streak of three successive victories for Team Europe, a career-defining week for Perry.
In 2009, the 48-year-old Perry entered 24 events, and made the cut in all 24. He finished in the top 10 in 10 events that year, placing him 5th on the 2009 PGA Tour official money list and earning him $4,445,562.
That was a golden year for Perry, one few golfers enjoy, but it had its tough moments as well. Perry was leading the Masters by two strokes going into the final two holes. Few would have put him there, ahead of Tiger Woods and the usual front runners, but on that Sunday afternoon with only two holes to go, fewer still would have thought he would end up only tying for second. When it was over, his three children stood on the sidelines crying.
Critics say he choked under the intense pressure, and Perry acknowledges that he “didn’t get the job done,” but with a year to reflect the veteran golfer says he smiles when he thinks about the event.
“I still look back at it as a great accomplishment,” Perry says. “It was fun. Nobody expected a 48-year-old to be that successful. To me, I didn’t have anything to get over. I did everything I could, and that is all you can ask of yourself. It hurt me more to see my kids crying. Two months later, I won another tournament.”
That was a very different reaction from another near miss at a major tournament earlier in his career. In 1996, Perry was in contention at the PGA Championship at Valhalla. He had a two-shot lead on the last hole but double bogeyed, and Mark Brooks beat him in the playoff. Perry says it took him three years to get over that second-place finish in a major that looked like he would win. (There are only four major tournaments.)
At home in Franklin
For now, professional life will remain fast-paced for Perry as he and Sandy crisscross the country for Perry to compete. Back home in Franklin, it is a different story, however.
“My time at home is laid-back,” Perry says. “As stressful as my job is, I just like to sleep in my own bed, relax, go to movies, and eat out. It’s mostly pretty boring. In the summer I like to restore old muscle cars.”
Just don’t challenge Perry to a game of any sort. The competitive spirit that has propelled him to the top of the elite golf world will undoubtedly come out.
“I am a competitive person,” Perry concedes. “Whether it is a board game, a card game, shooting hoops, or pitching horseshoes, I want to win. I get into the heat of the moment. My kids never even got a break when they were little.”
Nonetheless, Perry never forgets his priorities.
“My faith is first, my family is second, and my career is third,” he says. “That is how I have always focused my life. It is what I have always lived by. My life has been blessed. A lot of people have helped me on this long journey. It’s been a magical ride. It’s been pretty remarkable.” KL
“Do you know Kenny Perry?”
It’s a common question at Kenny Perry’s Country Creek, the public golf course Perry designed and built in Franklin. The funny thing is, several times it has been Perry himself standing behind the front desk answering the question. He loves to go to the course and talk with the golfers.
“If they don’t know, I don’t tell them,” chuckles Perry. “I say, ‘Yes, I know him, and he’s doing pretty good.’ I never let on. It is funny.”
Perry poured $2.3 million into the course. He also made it affordable so everyone could play his beloved sport. Eighteen holes with a cart is $30 on weekdays and $35 on weekends. That, he hopes, speaks to his belief that golf should be accessible to all, not just the wealthy.
“We were very fortunate to belong to the Franklin Country Club when I was growing up,” he says, “but my buddies weren’t (members) so we couldn’t play golf together. I always felt that was wrong. I knew Franklin needed a place where everybody could play.
“Golf is a great pastime for all your life. It is something you can use in business and something to just enjoy. Golf also teaches you a lot. Country Creek is definitely not Valhalla, but the staff will treat you like a king or princess. To me that is very important.”
KENNY PERRY’S COUNTRY CREEK
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