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He Lost the Masters, But Won Our Hearts

He lost the Masters. Kenny Perry was two shots ahead with two holes to play Sunday, and we were thinking how fitting it would be, how appropriate, if this 48-year-old with such great perspective, would finally get his major championship.

He didn’t. He lost the Masters. Kenny Perry, however, won our hearts.

Golf is the cruelest of games, a temptress, a harlot who waves a beckoning finger and then slaps you across the face and shoves you into the gutter. She’ll snicker at your failure, showing not one iota of respect. Or sympathy.

The 2009 Masters champion is that most underrated of pros, Angel Cabrera. In a sentence, he’s from Argentina and a wonderful golfer, two years ago having won the U.S. Open.

Perry, Cabrera and Chad Campbell ended in a three-way tie at 12-under par. Campbell bogeyed the first extra hole and was done. Perry bogeyed the second extra hole, and the Masters was done.

Don’t cry for us Argentina. Or, said Perry, for himself. Even though by all rights he should have won. Because he deserved to win.

Perry grew up in Kentucky with a father who pushed him too hard to excel. A father who, at age 85, with two stents in his heart, sat in the shop of the golf course Kenny built for his home town, Franklin, and suffered while the son he loves so much missed a second chance of a lifetime.

The first was in his home state, at Valhalla Golf Club near Louisville, where Kenny lost the 1996 PGA Championship (also in a playoff). That loss pained him do deeply, lasted so long, Kenny put all his effort last year into qualifying for the Ryder Cup at Valhalla, in an attempt to regain the admiration of fans who wouldn’t forget.

That accomplished – his play helped the U.S. win the cup and also earned his family status as grand marshals of the Kentucky Derby parade – Kenny said he could concentrate on winning a major.

Which he almost did. Which he should have done. But which he couldn’t do.

Two shots ahead, two holes remaining. Not easy holes. Not at a killer of a course, Augusta National. Not when you’re a few weeks from your 49th birthday. Not when the only item lacking on your spectacular resume is a major win.

Maybe he was nervous. Maybe he was weary. Perry bogeyed 17. Perry bogeyed 18. Perry lost his lead. Then as darkness advanced onto the red clay country of east Georgia, Perry lost the Masters.

But not his class.

“Two different situations,” said Perry, comparing this disappointment with that of ’96. “I was young at Valhalla. Here I thought I had enough experience. I thought I had enough to hang in there. But I was proud of how I played. I really was.”

And he should be proud. Perry came from tough times, and as a kid didn’t have the luxury of high-priced academy. He’s raised a family and with his earnings and raised huge sums for charity.

His father, Ken Sr., was an insurance man who, when Kenny was 7 or 8, would sit on the grass, tee up one golf ball after another and make the boy swing and swing. “He beat me up,” said Kenny, meaning emotionally. “He was a smart man. He knew you had to be tough.”

And if there’s anything Kenny Perry has displayed, it’s his toughness, repeatedly trying to qualify for the Tour back in the early 1980s, winning numerous tournaments, including three last year and one this year, and acting like a gentleman after what happened in the final round of this Masters.

“I’m not going to feel sorry,” he said. “If this is the worst thing that happens out here, 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. But I’m looking forward to (the U.S. Open at) Bethpage Black. I’m looking forward to the British, to the PGA. You know what? I can do it now, because it was fun.”

For 16 holes it was. He didn’t make a bogey for 16 holes under the most intense pressure in one of the most prestigious tournaments on one of the most difficult courses. Then he made two in a row.

“Our game’s tough,” Kenny Perry confirmed. But as we know, so is he.

“It’s a mental game, and it plays a lot with your head. So I’m going to enjoy it. We are going to have some fun.”

Even if he doesn’t have the Masters.

As a reporter since 1960, Art Spander is a recipient of the Dick McCann Memorial Award -- given for his long and distinguished career covering professional football -- and a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He's also honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the PGA of America. His columns appear in RealClearSports on Wednesdays and Fridays.

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