To get to Kenny Perry's Country Creek Golf Course, in Franklin, Ky., you drive by the James Monroe Bluegrass Music Hall, cross the railroad tracks, go past a pair of massive steel chicken-feed silos, cut through soybean and wheat fields, make a left onto Kenny Perry Drive, and then, suddenly, there it is, 6,633 yards of well-manicured community service. There wasn't a public course in all of Simpson County until Perry built one for the people in 1995, and the place is a monument to its proprietor—so low-key there are no weekday tee times, with players moseying to the 1st tee whenever they feel like it.
This is an article from the Sept. 16, 2008 issue
On this particular summer morning Perry is hosting a breakfast for a couple dozen of Franklin's leading citizens, who had donated the money to cover the spiffy new granite markers on each of Country Creek's tee boxes. Turned out in shorts and sneakers, with a buzz cut right out of American Graffiti, Perry mixes easily with these old friends and acquaintances, sitting at one of the long tables crammed into the pro shop and pigging out on country ham and biscuits and cheesy scrambled eggs, just like everybody else. Though he dominated golf headlines for much of the spring and summer—with his stellar play and his contrarian apathy for the U.S. and British Opens—no one talks about golf here. The conversation floats lightly from summer vacation plans to the new movie at the Franklin drive-in to the health scare of a beloved local. Perry is disinclined to be the center of attention, and when he is compelled to stand up and thank the group, his remarks last no more than 30 seconds.
After breakfast everyone shuffles outside, gathering in the shade of a stand of towering old trees. This morning has been chosen for the dedication of a bench and landscaped sitting area in memory of Gordon Collins, a beloved assistant pro who had worked at the course almost from the day it opened until his death last year at age 41. Teenage cynicism has not yet arrived in Franklin; Collins had eagerly mentored many young golfers, and as friends and family share a few of their favorite stories about Collins, tears are unself-consciously streaming down the cheeks of almost every pimply kid on hand. Perry, too, is wiping his eyes and swallowing hard. After the little ceremony Collins's mother and sister take photos around the bench, insisting that Perry and his wife, Sandy, join them.
A little while later Perry is holding court on the patio outside the pro shop. The mood has lightened. The Franklin-Simpson High team is practicing at Country Creek today, and the kids have gathered to deconstruct their rounds. Perry has close ties to the program—he was an assistant coach for years as his son, Justin, and daughters, Lesslye and Lindsey, passed through the school, and he still donates equipment and advice. He clearly enjoys gently hazing the kids, saying to one, "Don't tell me what you should have shot. Tell me what you did shoot."
This is Perry's first day back in Franklin after a long stretch enduring the grind of Tour life. A few miles away is his big brick house, backing up to Drake's Creek, where he often catches bass or black perch or catfish for dinner, but Country Creek is Perry's home away from home. He seems happy just to hang around the course, catching up on all the gossip. Settling into a patio chair, he sips a soda and lazily monitors the action on the nearby 10th tee and 18th green. Many of the golfers nod or wave or call out to him as they pass by. "Coming home, it's like this big sigh of relief," Perry says. "It's peaceful here. It's relaxing. I'm just Kenny, nothing special. Sitting here on this porch, cool breeze in my face, talking to friends, what could be better?"
Winner of 12 career tournaments, ninth on the alltime earnings list with more than $26 million, Perry could live anywhere, but Franklin (pop. 8,079) suits him just fine. His family has deep roots in the community—grandfather A.M. was the town's mayor, and Kenny's father, Ken (known to everyone as simply Mr. Perry), helped found the local country club. Franklin is where Kenny grew up, where he married his eighth-grade sweetheart and where today his three sisters still live, as do his brother-and mother-in-law. Later this year Lesslye, his elder daughter, will wed a local boy in the church Kenny attends every Sunday when he's not on Tour.
"We're trying to keep the wedding to under 500 people," Sandy says with a sigh.
"I have a feeling the whole town is going to show up," Kenny says with a chuckle, "and that'll be fine. Let 'em all come."
Tucked into the southwest corner of the state, Franklin is such a speck on the map that Perry's PGA Tour colleague Steve Flesch, a native of Union, Ky., says, "I've been all over Kentucky, but I've never been there. It's like that old expression: You have to get lost to find it." Yet Perry is perplexed by suggestions that he should have somehow outgrown Franklin. "This is all I know," he says. "This is home. Always has been, always will be."
PERRY WILL be coming home again for next week's Ryder Cup, played at Valhalla Country Club in Louisville, 130 miles north of Franklin. At the start of this season Perry was 92nd in the World Ranking, 2 1/2 years removed from his last victory and, at 47, seemingly ready to coast through his final few seasons until climbing on the Champions tour gravy train. No one considered him a contender to make the U.S. Ryder Cup team except those around Franklin, who had some inside information. Perry was the featured guest at a Boys & Girls Club fund-raiser late last year, and during a Q and A with the crowd of 350 he revealed that he was going to tailor his schedule in hopes of realizing his only goal for 2008, to make the Ryder Cup team. (This drew a raucous cheer from the crowd.) Perry has long been a familiar sight at the narrow Country Creek driving range, where he smashes restricted-flight balls alongside the paying customers, but there was a different intensity to his workouts heading into this season.
One regular at the course, Stan England, says, "I was up there with my grandson Ben, must've been February, and Kenny was all alone on the range. He was like a machine, hitting ball after ball. I could see the tiredness in his face, in his body, but there was no letup in him. It was a sight to behold. I told Ben, 'Pay attention to how hard that man is working. There's a lesson in there for you.'"
The payoff for Perry was a spectacular run that began in May at the AT&T Classic, which he lost in a playoff to Ryuji Imada. Over his next five starts Perry won three times. As he racked up gobs of Ryder Cup qualifying points, he stuck to his single-minded plan, skipping the taxing 36-hole U.S. Open qualifier and passing on the long journey to the British Open, where he was exempt. Instead he played in Milwaukee, a venue better suited to his high-ball game. Perry was barbecued by many in the golf press and even some of his peers for skipping the holy Open, but lost in the acrimony was his simple explanation that he had committed to Milwaukee much earlier in the season, before he was the game's hottest player. Mr. Perry says it was a simple choice given Kenny's small-town values. "What people don't understand is that Kenny done told 'em he was going to play there, so that's all there is to it," says Mr. Perry, still spry enough at 84 to pick the Country Creek driving range every day at 6 a.m. "His word is his word."
While all the other top players were losing their swings (and their minds) in the brutal conditions at Royal Birkdale, Perry shot a final-round 64 in Milwaukee to tie for sixth. He has cooled off slightly over the last few months, but his game is perfect for match play. He is third on Tour in birdie average (3.87 a round), making him a potentially potent partner in better-ball, and as one of the greatest drivers of his generation, he should make a particularly trusty teammate in the alternate-shot format. He will also enjoy a rousing home field advantage. "I expect the Kentucky fans are going to go a little crazy for Kenny," says U.S. captain Paul Azinger. "In fact, I'm counting on it."
Perry is bringing along his own gallery from Franklin. The PGA of America supplied him with 20 badges, and he bought 30 more. ("For $6,000!" he says, still in disbelief.) He also entered the name of every family member he could think of in a public lottery and won 10 more tickets.
"Valhalla is going to be the culmination of my career," Perry says. "It's going to be a celebration. It's my chance to celebrate with my fans and the people who have always supported me. I'm going to enjoy the walk, that's for sure."
Valhalla is a particularly meaningful venue because, as Perry says, "I feel like that place owes me one."
At the '96 PGA Championship at Valhalla, Perry arrived on the 72nd tee with a two-stroke lead. A cautious par on the uphill par-5 would have probably won the tournament, but Perry hit a snap hook into the gnarly bluegrass rough and went on to make bogey. According to Mr. Perry, the partisan crowd was partly to blame: "There were so many Kentuckians out there hootin' and hollerin' and making a ruckus. Kenny heard the cheers up on 18 and thought the guys ahead of him were birdieing, so he figured he needed one more birdie to be safe. But all those fans were cheering because Kenny's scores were being posted up near the green."
Perry still stepped off the final green with a one-stroke lead and was promptly invited to the CBS tower, where he spent a seeming eternity chitchatting with Jim Nantz and Ken Venturi. Perry didn't leave the airwaves until Mark Brooks, playing in the final pairing, birdied the 72nd hole to force sudden death. Perry asked to hit a few practice balls but was denied by PGA of America officials who rushed him straight to the tee for the playoff, bowing to the pressure of CBS and the threat of incoming lightning. After having sat in the booth for nearly 40 minutes, Perry looked stiff and out of sorts in the playoff, taking five slashes to reach the green. He never finished the hole as Brooks made a merciless walk-off birdie. Franklin's Ronnie Ferguson says his friend was partly undone by his shy, retiring nature. "Kenny didn't even want to be on TV, but that's the kind of guy is—he won't say no to anybody," says Ferguson. "And I've heard it said that if he had made a big deal of it, they would've let him hit some balls before the playoff began, but no way Kenny would ever do something like that."
Perry has never been in serious contention at another major, but that doesn't seem to bother the folks around Franklin. "I was proud of the way he handled himself in defeat," says Mr. Perry, fishing a cigar out of the pocket on his denim overalls. After pausing to fiddle with the stogie, he continued. "I've always been proud of him, of the way he's lived his life. He's a good boy. To the best of my knowledge, he's never smoked a cigarette or tasted alcohol or said a bad word. He doesn't even like it when someone else tells a dirty joke, though sometimes I can't help myself."
Adds Ferguson, "That PGA put Kenny on the map, and Franklin too. When I tell people where I'm from, the first thing they always say is, Do you know Kenny Perry? I'm proud to say I do. He's a wonderful ambassador for this town and its values."
IT DOESN'T TAKE long to drive through Franklin. Start on the outskirts of town where the old-fashioned drive-in is cut into the fields. Across the street is Jim's Bar-B-Que, where the rib meat tumbles off the bone and Perry chews the fat twice a week on average. Years ago Hall of Famer Nick Price came to Franklin to visit his friend, and he still remembers the quality of the barbecue and how Perry knew everyone in the joint. "He's like the mayor there," says Price. Crossing under Interstate 65, you pass the Wal-Mart where Perry likes to do his shopping. ("Actually, he usually does more talking than shopping," says Sandy.) Across the street is a Zaxby's Chicken fast-food franchise owned by his future son-in-law, Justin Harris, its walls covered with memorabilia from Perry's career. A little farther up on the lefthand side is the Church of Christ that Perry attends. "There's always a little extra buzz in the air during services when Kenny is playing well at a tournament," says Ferguson, a church elder. Then you come to the picturesque town square, where someone is always sitting on a bench eating ice cream and live bands play every weekend in the summer. On Friday and Saturday nights the local teens cruise around the square, just as Kenny and Sandy did when they were young and restless. Just past the square is the pleasantly greasy Randall's Service Station, where Perry likes to hang out and talk shop with the owner, Carver, who looks after Perry's fleet of six vintage muscle cars plus the full-blown dragster he occasionally races. (Carver is also fixing up a 1967 fastback Mustang for Price.) Among Perry's most prized possessions are a '67 Chevy 2Nova with a big-block 454 juiced with nitrous oxide ("wicked" is Carver's scouting report) and a '69 Camaro with a 505-horsepower engine borrowed from a Corvette Z06 ("sucker's mean"). Carver keeps in his cluttered waiting area the oversized cardboard winner's check Perry earned at the 2005 Colonial, but Perry would "much rather talk about cars than golf," Carver says of his friend. "He's just a hot-roddin' son-of-a-gun who loves his horsepower, like all us good ol' boys do."
One block off the square is the Franklin Boys & Girls Club. It is a gleaming facility that opened last year, with a gym big enough for two basketball courts; a state-of-the-art computer room; a learning center piled high with books; a game room with air hockey, Foosball and two pool tables; and a flat-screen TV in the lobby where the Wii video-game console is in constant use. In the afternoon, buses arrive from every school in Simpson County, and so far 500 kids have become members for the princely annual fee of $12. Perry has been one of the Boys & Girls Club's principal boosters, tirelessly fund-raising and donating $125,000 of his own money. He is also an enthusiastic supporter of the Potter Children's Home & Family Ministries, a facility in nearby Bowling Green for orphans and families in need. Country Creek could also qualify as charitable work. Every dollar generated gets plowed back into the course, and, says Perry, "this winter was the first time I didn't have to dip into my own pocket to pay the salaries, about $5,000 a week. I was like, Thank you, Lord."
Perry has a very specific way of paying back the Almighty—throughout his career he has donated 5% of his Tour earnings to Lipscomb University, a Christian school in Nashville from which his wife and his friend Ronnie Ferguson graduated. How this arrangement came to be says a lot about Perry, and Franklin.
Perry has always been a late bloomer, spiritually and athletically. He was baptized by Sandy's father, Earl Ware, when he was 22, just as he was finishing up at Western Kentucky. In sending Perry off for his pro career, Ferguson told him, "If you ever need any help, just ask."
After four years of struggling on the mini-tours, Perry was back in Franklin, broke and bleakly assessing his future. With a child to provide for and another on the way, he was thinking of asking Ferguson for a job in his dry-cleaning business. "But I had this burning to succeed as a golfer," says Perry. "I come from this tiny little town, and lots of people said I wouldn't make it on the PGA Tour. I always wanted to prove them wrong."
So he went to see Ferguson and reminded him of his offer to help from years before. "I had kind of forgotten," says Ferguson, "but I told him to keep talking." Perry then took a deep breath and asked if he could borrow $5,000 for one last shot at making it to the Tour through Q school. "I knew I was asking a lot of him," says Perry. "Ronnie had two kids in college and by no means did he have $5,000 laying around."
Ferguson went home, talked to his wife and spent the evening praying. He came up with an idea that he calls "providential." He would give Perry the money. If he failed at Q school, Perry owed Ferguson nothing. But if Perry succeeded he had to pledge 5% of his winnings to Lipscomb. "I didn't want the money hanging over his head," says Ferguson. "What was important was to give him another shot. What better role model could America's youth have than Kenny Perry? I knew he would use golf as his ministry, as a way to help others."
Perry blitzed through Q school and has never been back. Now that his contributions to Lipscomb are approaching $1.5 million, doesn't he think he's repaid his debt? "Oh, no, never," says Perry, aghast. "A deal's a deal. What Ronnie did for me, that was a tremendous life lesson. Shoot, yeah, that changed me. I've tried to honor that spirit of giving, but whatever I've given, I've gotten back tenfold." Invoking Luke 6:38, Perry says, "God's shovel is a lot larger than mine."
Perry will receive $200,000 in charity money for playing in the Ryder Cup, and he's already looking forward to dispersing it in and around Franklin. "You don't forget where you've come from," he says. "Golf is my job. It's what I do. Honestly, it doesn't mean that much to me. Lots of players lose perspective. It's all about themselves. I want to be about other people."
At Valhalla he will be playing for his teammates, his country, his home state and, most of all, his little hometown. Speaking of Franklin, Perry says, "I don't want to let 'em all down. I don't ever want to do something to disappoint the people here."
Not to worry. No matter what happens at the Ryder Cup, Franklin will welcome him home.
For Alan Shipnuck's Hot/Not column, go to GOLF.com.