FOX CHAPEL — Turns out, Kenny Perry had been going at this whole “trying to win a major thing” all wrong.
Three times during his otherwise solid professional career, Perry found himself in contention on golf’s biggest stage. Three times, he played too conservatively to win.
Not this time.
Perry fired a 6-under 64 in the final round to leapfrog Fred Couples on Sunday and win the Senior Players Championship by two shots over Couples and Duffy Waldorf at soggy and defenseless Fox Chapel Country Club.
“I was trying to make birdies,” said Perry, who didn’t record a bogey over his final 37 holes. “I guess that was a different mindset from before where instead of trying to make pars, I was trying to make birdies.”
And ridiculously easy ones at that.
Perry knocked it to within a couple of inches on the par-4 16th to take a two-shot lead and followed it up with a 6-iron to 2 feet on the par-3 17th.
The collapses that befell him in setbacks at the 1996 PGA Championship, the 2009 Masters and the Senior PGA last month never repeated. Perry calmly tapped in for par on the par-5 18th to fill the last remaining hole on his r￩sum￩.
Now that he’s finally figured out how to win a major after finishing at 19-under 261, the 52-year-old thinks more may be on the way.
“I’m hoping the floodgates are going to open,” Perry said. “But I don’t know, anytime you get into contention you get nervous, you get antsy. But today I had a peace about me. ... If I can kind of draw upon this the next time I get into the heat of things, hopefully I’ll finish it off like I did today.”
Something Couples failed to do yet again in his fourth runner-up finish of the year, including each of the last two majors.
The Hall of Famer leads the Champions Tour in putting average, but could generate little magic on Sunday. He began the day with a two-shot cushion, but couldn’t build on it, shooting a lackluster 2-under 68 that included a handful of crucial miscues.
Couples drove the green on the short par-4 seventh only to three-putt for par. He later knocked it within 8 feet on the 15th only to send his birdie attempt streaking past the hole. He pulled the comebacker to the left and the bogey gave Perry all the opening he would need.
“There were a couple shots you always should have back,” Couples said. “The putt on (15) looked so easy and I just hammered it and I kind of flinched at it coming down the hill ... it was a little bit of a sour day the way I played after I teed off.”
Perry stuffed a pitching wedge within inches on the 16th, and then hit a 6-iron to within 2 feet on the par-3 17th. He tapped in the birdie to maintain his two-stroke lead, and then had to play smartly on the 18th. He left it just short of the green in two and watched as Waldorf and Couples both reached the long par-5. Their long-range eagle attempts never sniffed the cup, and when Perry rolled in his par putt, he thrust the ball in the air in celebration just before the sky opened for one last deluge on the water-logged course.
Fox Chapel took on more than four inches of rain during the week, turning what was supposed to be a stiff test into a pitch and putt for long hitters like Couples and Perry.
The conditions begged for players at attack the pins. Rather than simply protect par as he did during his near-misses in earlier majors, Perry knew he could go for it.
It paid off with a $405,000 check and one very significant weight off his shoulders.
Perry trailed by as many as eight shots earlier in the tournament before tracking down Couples over the weekend. He drew within two, thanks to consecutive 7-under 63s in the second and third rounds and kept it going on Sunday.
It was sweet vindication for a player who has won more than $31 million during his 31-year career, but is just as well known for his tragedies as he is for his triumphs.
Perry held a one-shot lead over Mark Brooks at the 1996 PGA Tournament at Valhalla just outside Louisville, about two hours north of his hometown of Franklin, Ky., only to bogey the final hole to fall into a playoff with Brooks.
The agony grew exponentially 13 years later, when he stood on the 17th tee at Augusta with a two-shot lead. Consecutive bogeys dropped Perry into a three-way tie with Angel Cabrera and Chad Campbell. He failed to get up and down on No. 10, the second playoff hole, and Cabrera made par to capture the green jacket.
Perry had another close call at the Senior PGA in May. He led through three rounds at Bellerive in St. Louis, but was dogged by knee pain and overtaken by unheralded Kohki Idoki.
This time, there would be no folding.
“It’s not surprising, (Perry) is obviously a great player,” Waldorf said. “Winning these majors isn’t easy and he did a great job this week.”