Kenny Perry signs autographs during a practice round for the PGA Championship golf tournament at Valhalla Golf Club on Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2014, in Louisville, Ky. The tournament is set to begin on Thursday. (AP Photo/John Locher)
Kenny Perry walks across the 13th green during a practice round for the PGA Championship golf tournament at Valhalla Golf Club on Tuesday, Aug. 5, 2014, in Louisville, Ky. The tournament is set to begin on Thursday. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Kenny Perry signs autographs after a practice round for the PGA Championship golf tournament at Valhalla Golf Club on Tuesday, Aug. 5, 2014, in Louisville, Ky. The tournament is set to begin on Thursday. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
Kenny Perry, third right, walks up to the 18th green during the third round of the Champions Tour 3M Championship golf tournament at TPC Twin Cities in Blaine, Minn., Sunday, Aug. 3, 2014. Perry won the tournament. AP Photo/Paul Battaglia)
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Kenny Perry worked his way slowly along the railing just off the ninth green at Valhalla Golf Club, patiently signing everything that came his way for nearly 45 minutes.
Hats. Balls. Flags. Programs.
Even a Kentucky license plate.
If this is to be his final major championship, it’s quite a farewell.
“I’m just excited for the opportunity to go out the back door one more time, as they say,” Perry said, breaking into a big grin that just won’t go away.
“One more time.”
At 53, he got a special invitation to play in the PGA Championship because, well, this is home.
He was raised and still lives in Franklin, Kentucky, a hamlet of less than 10,000 residents about a two-hour drive away, down in the southern part of the state near the Tennessee line.
Valhalla might as well be his home club, a place where he has experienced enormous heartache (losing a playoff to Mark Brooks at the 1996 PGA Championship) and exhilarating joy (he was part of the last U.S. team to win the Ryder Cup in 2008).
These days, it feels like a little bit of heaven.
“Being a Kentuckian,” he said, “it made me pretty proud.”
Perry’s career on the PGA Tour was filled with plenty of accomplishments, including 14 victories and two Ryder Cup appearances. But he let two major titles slip through his fingers, including the 2009 Masters when he had a two-stroke lead with two holes to play. At 48, he would’ve been the oldest player ever to claim a green jacket, but he bogeyed the 17th and 18th holes, then made another in the playoff and lost to Angel Cabrera.
But the one that really stings is that PGA Championship nearly two decades ago.
Perry went to the 72nd hole with a two-stroke lead. All he needed was a par on the second-easiest hole on the course.
He made bogey.
It took a while to get over that one.
“I always think about the 18th hole,” Perry said. “It’s a par-5 that’s very gettable and you can make eagle on it. That’s pretty disappointing to have a hole where I struggle to make par on it, much less make an easy birdie.”
He still remembers the drive, hooking left into the thick rough. He remembers laying up, not very well. He remembers standing over a 10-foot putt that still would’ve clinched the Wanamaker Trophy, sliding by the right side of the cup.
“It taught me a lot about finishing and not getting ahead of yourself and thinking about the prize at the end,” Perry said. “It took me about a year, year and a half, to get over that loss. I played very poorly and was thinking about that event. But then once I got through it, the loss at the Masters really didn’t bother me that bad.”
He does realize how much different things would’ve been if he’d just made par on the final hole at Valhalla, if he’d made par on the final hole at Augusta.
“You always look back,” he conceded. “They were blows in my career. If I would have had those two majors, you could look at my career as a Hall of Fame career. I would have won 16 times with two majors. That probably would have been close to a Hall of Fame career. I mean, Freddie Couples gets in with 15 (PGA Tour) wins and one major.
“I was that close,” Perry added, holding his thumb and index finger about an inch apart, “to getting in the Hall of Fame.”
But it’s clear he didn’t let those two disappointments take away from an otherwise full life. He’s carved out quite a niche on the Champions Tour, winning seven times since turning 50. His son played on Western Kentucky’s golf team and occasionally caddies for his dad. He’s got two young grandchildren and just found out another is on the way. He actually had to give up his regular Tuesday babysitting duties to be at the PGA Championship.
“You can fold up and kick the dog,” Perry said, “but I didn’t look at it that way. I love playing golf. I love competing. I love providing for my family. It’s been a great career. I’ve met a lot of people along the way. I’ve traveled the world. The experiences are what I call scrapbooking. You’ve got all these things in your life that made you who you are in your life.”
At Valhalla, it’s clear that there are many, many people who appreciate all the things he’s done, not a couple of things he didn’t do.
He’s determined to return the love.
“To me, it’s a way of saying thank you for 30 years of support and thank you for your love and compassion for me,” he said.
As Perry finally reached the long line of fans Wednesday — having signed for everyone he could, posed for dozens of photographs and chatted with folks like they were all his best friends — the crowd broke into applause.
Then a chant.
“Kenny! Kenny! Kenny!”
Not a bad way to go out.
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963