EDMOND, Okla. – Not that any player would diminish the importance of winning the U.S. Senior Open, but when Kenny Perry captured last year’s championship at Omaha Country Club, he enjoyed an overwhelming sense of fulfillment that he never realized during a PGA Tour career that included 14 victories.
I think when you are an American and you win your national championship, no matter at what stage of your career, it’s about as special as anything you could accomplish, said Perry, the affable long hitter from Franklin, Ky. I think as the years go by I’ll appreciate it more and more.
There’s a lot to appreciate. Perry stormed to his second senior major of 2013 with a sizzling 64-63 weekend performance that yielded a five-stroke victory over Fred Funk. His 13-under 267 aggregate total tied the championship record Hale Irwin set in 2000 at Saucon Valley Country Club.
With three victories last year, including his first senior major in the Constellation Energy Senior Players Championship, Perry was voted Champions Tour Player of the Year.
That will be the summer I never forget, said Perry, 53.
Perry hopes to make this summer unforgettable, too, and he could do that with another national championship. He will be one of the favorites for the 35th U.S. Senior Open that begins Thursday at Oak Tree National. Perry begins his title defense at 1:42 p.m. CDT on the No. 1 tee, grouped with 2013 Senior British Open champion Mark Wiebe and Doug Hanzel, the reigning U.S. Senior Amateur champion.
As glorious as his year was, Perry admitted that it didn’t fully erase some of the previous disappointments in major championships. Twice in his career Perry lost in playoffs, in the 1996 PGA Championship at Valhalla Golf Club in his native Kentucky (to Mark Brooks), and in the 2009 Masters (to Angel Cabrera).
He was frank in talking about those setbacks – and why the U.S. Senior Open win was so special.
I love what I did last year, but it only puts a band aid on that hurt [of losing in close calls], he admitted. Our careers are judged by regular tour majors. I didn’t get that done. But now I have a chance to do that on the senior tour, and I’m not complaining. Winning a major is hard. It’s an accomplishment. And winning the Senior Open, that’s as good as it gets out here.
Perry hasn’t been quite as hot with the putter this year, but it showed up in his lone win this season, the Regions Tradition, giving him a third senior major.
Putting also will be the key for him in this week’s title defense – mostly because he believes his power advantage is mitigated on the narrow Oak Tree fairways. Though the par-71 course can measure up to 7,219 yards, trouble lurks beyond the 270-yard area on many par 4s, he said. Perry is likely to hit more 5-woods than drivers every day.
That’s OK, we’ll just have to find another way to win, said Perry’s longtime caddie, Fred Sanders.
That’s why Perry was trying out a new putter model during his Wednesday practice round, in hopes of mastering the quick Oak Tree greens. Well, actually, it wasn’t totally new; it was the club with which he won the Senior Players, the event that proved a springboard to his U.S. Senior Open triumph.
Though he has only one victory to go along with five other top 10s in 2014, Perry feels confident about his chances this week. He said he likes the Pete Dye-designed layout despite robbing him of his primary weapon. There is not one easy hole out here, he noted. Which is not unlike what he faced just a few weeks ago when he competed in the U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2. Thanks to a second-round 69, Perry made the cut and went on to finish tied for 28th.
Perry’s success in the last year has put him in a different frame of mind, regardless of the venue at hand. He always hoped he would have a chance to win on the regular tour. As a senior golfer, he sees himself differently. His confidence has ratcheted up a few notches.
When I come in each week, I'm expecting to win, he said. I may not win, and I may not even make the cut, I don't know, but I feel good mentally as I approach these events.
Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based freelance writer whose work has appeared previously on USGA websites.