AUGUSTA, Ga. – Behind him mayhem had raged, Phil and Tiger causing the Augusta pines to shake as they charged up the leaderboard. The world's top two players were coming fast and furious, in front of the largest gallery anyone had ever seen around here. Then Angel Cabrera and Chad Campbell wouldn't fade either, mounting challenge after challenge as the shadows grew long.
And Kenny Perry just kept whacking the ball straight.
Nothing could rattle him. He went 16 holes Sunday (23 overall) without a bogey. He capped it with a tee shot on 16 he called "the greatest shot of my life" and then tapped in for birdie. He was up two strokes with two to play, at age 48 about to become the oldest major champion ever.
"Two pars," Sandy Perry, his wife, said from behind the 16th green. "Two pars."
He went bogey-bogey. Then another bogey on the second playoff hole gave Cabrera the Masters and left him doing interviews while his children sobbed uncontrollably to the side.
They'd just seen their daddy blow his second shot at a major. They'd just seen a man who admits he sacrificed his athletic prime to maintain a balanced life and be a championship father fail in a miracle, late-career chance at glory.
They'd just watched a good ol' boy from Kentucky, with his mind on his sick mama, who built his little hometown a muni and still gives five percent of his earnings to a Christian college, fall apart in the face of pressure.
Then they'd watched him maintain a poise and perspective that says more about him than any green jacket ever could.
"If this is the worst thing that happens in my life, my life's pretty good," he kept saying. "It really is."
His daughter Lesslye, oversized sunglasses covering her face, dropped her head and cried even harder upon hearing that.
"Let's go home," Perry finally said when he was done with one last TV stand-up. The sun was all but set over Augusta National. The grounds had cleared. He surveyed the distraught family and sighed.
"Y'all smile, it's not that bad. It's a golf tournament."
Oh, it was more than a tournament, though. It was a Masters like no other, a wild day of comebacks and collapses, of unimaginable magic from Woods and Mickelson, of a frantic finish, a three-way, then two-way playoff and finally a gut punch for Perry and his kids.
Perry's from Franklin, Ky., once home to one of the country's most famous "dueling grounds." Future president Andrew Jackson gunned a guy down there; then-sitting U.S Congressman Sam Houston did, too.
Come up in Franklin and you learn the danger of a fidgety finger, when you're squaring off 15 paces, pistols in hand, when you've got Woods and Mickelson breathing down your neck and, presumably, when you're sitting in the 17th fairway with a major in your sights.
He had held steady for so long. Then he slipped.
"I had the tournament to win," he said. "I lost the tournament."
It was all too familiar. Thirteen years ago Perry had a two-stroke lead on the final tee of the PGA Championship. He wound up losing in a playoff, a defeat he says still haunts him.
"I've got two to think about now," he said, smiling weakly.
Cabrera, the unflappable Argentinean, who grew up so poor he dropped out of elementary school to work and support his parents, earned his second major. Woods and Mickelson, whose furious attack would've made for a historic comeback, provided the early afternoon thrills.
Perry, though, is the enduring image of this event. He knew this was probably his last, best chance at a major. He was already two years older than Jack Nicklaus when, in 1986, Jack became the oldest to win the green jacket.
Perry's game had come together recently because his youngest daughter, Lindsey, had gone off to Southern Methodist and he found the time again to concentrate on golf. He was a guy who perhaps could've been great, but never was willing to sacrifice everything in the pursuit of perfection. He's a dad. He's a husband. He's a good church man. He won't apologize for any of it.
He still gives some of his winnings to Lipscomb University, part of a long-ago deal with a church leader who helped pay for the PGA Tour's Qualifying School. He and his dad built and operate Kenny Perry's Country Creek Golf Course, a low-cost municipal he built hard by Interstate 65 on the northern side of Kentucky-Tennessee border.
At 48 and at the tailing end of a long career, he'd gained the experience to know that you don't worry about what you can't control, just what you can. He couldn't stop Woods and Mickelson – "When I saw Tiger and Phil both get it to 10 under, I was like, 'Wow, they must be having a lot of fun up there.' "
That's fine, Perry thought. Catch me if you can, he said. And they couldn't. Both got to 10 under before fading from contention. Neither ever went level with Perry.
"I knew they had to do something really spectacular to catch me," he said.
He could control his drive, so he did, hammering into the center of fairway after fairway. He could control his short game so he did, playing conservative and knocking it near the hole, where he kept tapping in.
He started the day at 11 under and opened with 13 pars and three birdies. By the time he pulled away from Cabrera and Campbell, the Masters was right in front of him, right there for the taking.
He'd outlasted them all; the Old Man with the new commitment to the game, about to do the unthinkable. He always wanted to win one of these to prove to himself that he could be truly great. And this is what the great ones do, they don't just win a highly competitive Masters, they run away from the field.
He was at 14 under, on pace for the fifth lowest score ever at the Masters, just four off Tiger Woods' outrageous 18 under to win in 1997.
Then it was all gone.
"It just seems like when I get down to those deals, I can't seem to execute," he said, humbly. "Great players make it happen, and your average players don't."
He went back to the 18th, where he had a putt to win. A tough putt, but a putt he'd seen others make. He always thought he could be a guy who could make that lonely shot.
"I've seen Tiger [make it], I've seen so many people make," he said, shaking his head. "It was just a nervous putt … I mean, how many chances do you have to win the Masters?"
He didn't want to relive it. This was the realization of his worst professional frailty. He wasn't great. He was just good. He was "average." So he flipped it and said he and the family were going to celebrate Sunday night – the fortunes of their life, the opportunities they've been granted.
"It's no use thinking about it," he said. "I can't go there. I lost. I shook Angel's hand. He did great."
A couple minutes later Kenny Perry hugged his wife and gathered his kids. They still needed convincing. "Your heart aches for him," Sandy said, her eyes watering. "He's a great dad. He just is."
They all got in an oversized cart and headed to the clubhouse, full of pain and perspective as dusk settled over the dogwoods.
- Kenny Perry