PITTSBURGH – Kenny Perry spent more than three decades futilely chasing the biggest prizes in golf.
Now, he can’t seem to stop winning them, on the Champions Tour at least.
The 53-year-old returns to Fox Chapel for the Senior Players Championship Thursday looking to defend the title he won a year ago, when he overcame a series of near misses in major tournaments with a command performance.
Perry shot 19-under 261 to hold off Fred Couples and Duffy Waldorf by two shots last June, stringing together three near perfect rounds that ended 30 years of frustration and took the shackles off his game.
“It just made me a more confident player,” Perry said Wednesday. “It made me feel like I finally did it and my response was maybe the floodgates will open.”
Did they ever.
The player who claims he was “snakebit” while famously falling short at the 1996 PGA Championship and 2009 Masters now has three major titles under his belt after adding the 2013 U.S. Senior Open last July and the Regions Tradition last month.
“My whole career has always been based on streaks,” Perry said. “When I got hot on the PGA Tour, I won multiple times and a lot of times. It’s just funny how my game is. It runs in cycles and it just happened all of a sudden.”
Perry knows his game well enough to know when one of the streaks is coming. It’s hard to tell if one is in the offing at the moment.
He held off Mark Calcavecchia at the Tradition in May, though it was more of a workmanlike triumph than one of the shotmaking clinics Perry puts on when things are going well.
Still, Perry didn’t falter when it mattered. He sank a 20-footer to take the lead for good at Shoal Creek then finished with a pair of routine pars. Credit a sense of calmness that comes with the pressure finally off.
“The Tradition I won on Sunday, I had a one-shot lead coming to 18 and I just drilled one right down the middle,” Perry said.
It’s not something he takes for granted.
Perry only needed par on the 18th at Valhalla in his native Kentucky in 1996 to win only to bogey before losing to Mark Brooks in a playoff. He found himself in the same spot at Augusta five years ago, when four shots on the 18th would have given him an unlikely green jacket at age 48. He bogeyed then too, opening the door for Miguel Angel Cabrera to win his second major.
“I couldn’t get it done in either situation,” Perry said.
Success on the Champions Tour has eased some of the sting. There are few on the tour who can match Perry’s length off the tee. When he’s not battling his notoriously balky putter, Perry is nearly unbeatable.
“He’s like a power pitcher hitting the black every night with his pitches,” Jay Haas said. “You know it’s going to be a long night for the batters.”
Winning a fourth straight start in a Champions Tour major, however, might be a reach. Perry is at the tail end of a draining stretch that’s seen him play eight times in nine weeks, including a tie for 28th at the U.S. Open at Pinehurst earlier this month.
“I’m ready for some time off, some down time and not worrying about trying to make 3-footers,” Perry said.
But only after trying to become the second player to defend at the Senior Players. Arnold Palmer won the event 1982 and 1983. Perry’s pro golf career was in its infancy back in those days. Now, he finds himself thinking about the end of the line.
Perry will return to Valhalla for the PGA Championship in August in what he’s calling – for now at least – his final bow on the PGA Tour.
“Most athletes who have a long career, you don’t get to say goodbye the way you want to say goodbye,” Perry said. “When your career is over, it’s over.”
Not for Perry, who has found second life — and a second chance — on the Champions Tour.
“It’s been great,” he said. “I won’t have this opportunity ever again probably so I’m enjoying the run, enjoying the ride.”