For longtime veteran golfer Kenny Perry, only history awaits at Masters

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Faith is not just born on the back nine of Augusta National.

Sometimes it gets a nudge in the office of a dry cleaner in Franklin, Ky. That was where Kenny Perry sat in the fall of 1986, out of money and low on options. Local businessman Ronnie Ferguson was an elder in a church back home in Franklin, and he listened to Perry's pitch for a $5,000 loan for a final shot at PGA qualifying school.

Give me the night to think and pray about it, Ferguson said. When they met the next day, Ferguson said he would not loan Perry the money. Instead he would give him the $5,000, no strings attached. All he asked is that if Perry someday made a living on the PGA Tour that he donate a percentage of money to Lipscomb University, a Christian school in nearby Nashville.

This morning, Perry is still playing golf and sits 18 holes away from the biggest payday of his life. He is 48 and near the end of a solid, if unremarkable, career. No player in the world has ever earned more money playing golf without winning a major.

And now history is within Perry's reach. He is tied for the lead of the Masters with Argentina's Angel Cabrera heading into today's final round. Tiger Woods is seven strokes away. Phil Mickelson, too. The favorites have struggled, and the young hot shots have faded. Hours from now, Perry could be the oldest man to ever win a major.

"At the time, Kenny was really down on his luck," Ferguson said by phone from Franklin. "I had faith that he would make the tour, but I never imagined it would get to this level where he's making millions and trying to win the Masters.

"I've often said it was the greatest investment I've ever made in an individual. It's paid off in so many ways for so many people. I had no idea just how fruitful it was going to be when we made that deal in '86. In my wildest dreams I didn't imagine this."

Trust is not something you earn while standing over a putt on the 18th hole.

More often than not, it grows over time and becomes a part of who you are. At least that's the way it must look to the folks at Lipscomb University. No contract was ever drawn up. There was never a discussion about a statute of limitations.

Instead, with the blessing of Ferguson, Perry began donating 5 percent of his PGA Tour winnings to a scholarship fund at Lipscomb for students from his hometown. It isn't for golfers. It isn't even for athletes. Along the way, it has been used by future nurses. Teachers. Ministers. Dozens of students have earned degrees this way.

After all this time, Perry is under no obligation to continue. He doesn't even have his name associated with the donations, instead calling it the Simpson County Scholarship Fund. In exchange for that initial $5,000, Perry has donated $1.4 million.

Today, some unsuspecting high school students in Franklin, Ky., could earn $67,500 toward their tuitions.

"You know what, we got 18 holes to go, and I'm in a great spot," Perry said. "I've got something I can achieve that will move me up another notch on the totem pole of the PGA Tour. I go from a good player to maybe people thinking I'm a better player.

"I'm never thinking I'll be a superstar, but most people who talk about me say I'm a nice guy and I'm a good player, and that's about all you hear. So maybe, you know, things will change. We'll change that attitude."

Glory is not something you just happen to discover on the final day of the Masters.

For those who have been there, the journey takes forever. Or so it seems for Sandy Perry and her husband, Kenny. They moved to Vero Beach as newlyweds in 1982 and lived with Kenny's aunt and uncle. Sandy worked part time at a boutique on the beach, and Kenny earned $800 a month working as a grunt at a local golf course.

He played mini-tour events when he had the time and money and tried unsuccessfully to earn his PGA Tour card in qualifying school in 1984 and '85. By then, the Perrys had two of their three children, and the clock was ticking on his career.

Had he not gotten the money from Ferguson and survived Q-school in '86, Perry might have been destined to be a club pro. Even after making the tour, Perry was not an immediate success. He won no tour events in his 20s, three in his 30s and now 10 in his 40s. The kids are all out of the house, and Perry says he has more time than ever to work on his game.

It has showed this weekend. Perry has had only four bogeys through 54 holes. His distance is not impressive, but he is hitting the greens in regulation and putting better than ever. Going head-to-head with co-leader Chad Campbell on Saturday, he picked up two strokes while Cabrera gained three in the group ahead of them.

"I got chills today listening to people cheer when he was walking up to the hole; it made me so proud because he deserves it so much," said his wife, Sandy. "So many people are getting to see what an awesome man Kenny is, and it's not just for his golf. To me, that's the best part of all this. Knowing that other people believe he deserves it."

Faith. Trust. Glory.

They've been a long time in the making for Kenny Perry.

Now history is all that waits.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

For longtime veteran golfer Kenny Perry, only history awaits at Masters 04/11/09 [Last modified: Sunday, April 12, 2009 7:05am]

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