AUGUSTA, Ga. — The thing is, he almost made it.
Improbable as Kenny Perry's story was, it almost had the sweetest ending you could come up with.
A golfer doesn't scuffle when he's young just to make the tour, struggle to hold his place throughout the middle of his career and then, at an age when most pros begin mapping out plans for the senior circuit, suddenly discover there's magic in those thick, calloused hands.
And for the better part of Sunday afternoon and on into early evening at the Masters, he was using it to weave himself a green jacket. Then, in the span of four holes, it all came apart.
"You know, it was a good day," Perry said moments after losing to Angel Cabrera on the second playoff hole, "I played great all the way through 16. I did OK on 17 and 18. It wasn't like I hit lousy shots. And I had a putt to win.
"I had that putt on 18 (to win in regulation) that I've seen Tiger make. I've seen so many people make that putt. I knew exactly what it was. That was probably the most disappointing putt of the day because I hit it too easy.
"I mean," Perry paused, "how many chances do you have to win the Masters?"
The thing is, he never expected to get that far.
Perry was a journeyman who blew a chance to win a major in 1996 at Valhalla Golf Club in his home state of Kentucky, figured another one might never come around again, and quietly melted back into the PGA Tour pack. He stayed there until 2003, content that he'd made enough money to live comfortably, open a little golf course close to his home in Franklin and, most important, pay back the $5,000 an elder at a nearby church loaned him to take one final shot at qualifying school. That stake is now a $1.4 million scholarship fund. Perry was as proud of that as all of his accomplishments combined.
But then, he won three times in 2003, twice more in 2005, and when his home state was awarded the Ryder Cup, he set the bar a lot higher at the start of 2008. He won three times and not only made the U.S. team, but he and fellow Kentuckian J.B. Holmes became the emotional engine for a squad that made sure that pricey little gold trophy resided on American soil for the first time in nine years.
When his father, Ken, 84 at the time and still wearing his work overalls, walked onto the 16th green at Valhalla to embrace the son he'd taught to play the game, Perry thought his life couldn't get much better. Then his mother got cancer and his father's health declined, but he kept playing as well as he had before— maybe better than ever through the first 16 holes of the Masters.
Back home in Franklin, Ken was watching the Masters on television, remembering the long journey Kenny made to get there.
"He was going to be a golfer from the time he was young," Ken recalled in a phone interview Sunday afternoon. "He used to hit balls for hours at a time when he was six and seven. I'd tee up all the golf balls we had, then he'd hit 'em and we'd get 'em all and I'd tee 'em up again and he'd hit every one. Over and over.
"When he was 12, he won the second flight at Franklin Country Club. Beat a man that was 50 years old and the fellow told me, 'I never seen a boy that could hit a golf ball like that. He's going to be on the PGA Tour someday,'" he said.
Then Ken paused.
"Uh-oh," he said, "looks like Kenny is fixing to make a bogey here."
That was at 17. Perry was 14-under, ahead by two strokes and he hadn't made a bogey in his last 42 holes. He was playing alongside Cabrera in the final group, but Perry can't see far enough to keep tab on all of his competitors, so he often relies on his longtime pal and caddie, Fred Sanders, to provide updates.
Everything was going smoothly until Perry developed a case of the "lefts." He started pulling irons, then his driver in that direction. Campbell fell out of the three-way playoff at the first extra hole, but when Cabrera completed a scrambling par to force a second, he walked off the green to see Perry leading the applause.
"I'm not going to feel sorry," Perry said. "I've said if this is the worst thing that happens to me, I can live with it. I really can.
"Great players get it done, and Angel got it done. This is the second major he won. I've blown two, but that's the only two I've had chances of winning."
Earlier in the week, when he was rolling and everything was falling his way, Perry tried to explain what it was like to find out at age 48 that he could play — really play. He talked about not being tough enough for Augusta before this, or having the short game to compete.
But Perry said once he realized he was playing with house money, he wasn't in a hurry to hand it back.
"I'm not going to hang my head from this deal. I fought hard out there. I was nervous. I was proud of the way I hung in there.
"You know what?" he added. "I may never get this opportunity again, but ... I know how the momentum and how it swings here and there, and if they execute and beat you, I'm going to shake the man's hand."
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at email@example.com
Perry's sweet story turns bitter at the end
AUGUSTA, Ga. — The thing is, he almost made it.