Perry's mind not on golf

SANDWICH, England -- Kenny Perry stood on the 13th tee at
Royal St. George's trying to decide what to do. The immediate
choice was to hit the driver or lay up with a 2-iron, but his
thoughts weren't really on the task at hand.

I'm thinking of packing it in. It's a tough call. I need to be with them. "

-- Kenny Perry

They were thousands of miles away in a small Kentucky town where
his family was mourning the death of a close relative.

''I'm thinking of packing it in,'' Perry said. ''It's a tough
call. I need to be with them.''

Perry had come across the ocean to play the British Open for the
first time in 12 years. It was to be a celebration of his career
and perhaps a defining moment for the man who is the hottest player
in the game at the moment.

Then he got a call Tuesday night about his nephew's wife, who
died of a brain aneurysm at age 27 in Bowling Green, Ky.

Suddenly, golf wasn't so important.

''We're a close-knit family. We do so much together, get
together at Christmas and all the holidays,'' Perry said. ''It's
going to be hard not to see her there.''

Perry spent Tuesday night checking airline schedules to see if
he could make it back for the funeral. He played his practice round
alone Wednesday, still trying to decide whether to go home.

As the round went on, Perry seemed to be leaning toward playing.
If he does, he will tee off just after Tiger Woods in Thursday's
first round.

Perry's name has never been mentioned in the same sentence with
Woods, but the way he's played lately has been very Tigerlike.

Perry has won three of his last four tournaments, a streak that
began at the Colonial and continued Sunday in the Greater Milwaukee
Open. In the fourth tournament, he finished third at the U.S. Open.

For a guy who won only four times before in a 17-year career, it
was pretty heady stuff. But the folks in Franklin, Ky., will still
occasionally find him working behind the counter of the golf course
he built for the town.

''Everybody knows everybody there. It's a special town,'' Perry
said. ''When I'm home, I'm no different than anyone else. I just
happen to have a very public job where everybody knows what I do
and what I make.''

Not everyone outside Franklin knew Perry, though, as he ground
his way through mini-tours and finally to the PGA Tour.

For years, his only goal was making enough money to survive and
play another year on the tour. Now, his future is secure and his
goals have changed a bit, along with the response from fans who
might have asked before: Kenny who?

''What impresses me is how many kids here knew I won last
week,'' Perry said. ''It blew my mind. They're very knowledgeable
golf fans here.''

Those kids were out in force Wednesday, politely asking Perry to
sign caps and programs as he walked between holes on wind-swept
Royal St. George's. He happily obliged, chatting as he went along
and patiently posing for photos.

''I'm glad to finally get a little respect,'' Perry said.
''Before, the journalists wouldn't pay any attention to me because
I hadn't won enough tournaments. I guess winning is everything.''

Perry hasn't played in the British Open since 1991, but not
because he has anything against links golf. The tournament is
usually sandwiched between the Milwaukee tournament and one in
Hartford, two tournaments Perry likes and plays well in.

This year, though, he couldn't refuse. He's driving the ball so
well and making so many putts that he knows he has the game to make
this his first major championship win.

That showed Wednesday as Perry hit a drive about 330 yards on
the 12th tee, then split the next fairway with a 2-iron some 290
yards. His irons were sharp and he was rolling the ball well,
despite suffering from jet lag.

Perry could be excused for being a bit tired. After winning in
Milwaukee on Sunday, he spent the night in a Chicago hotel room and
flew to London on Monday. He didn't arrive at the course until
Tuesday afternoon and was still trying to adjust Wednesday.

''I feel goofy,'' he said, walking up the 11th fairway.

Perry insists he's not surprised by his late-blooming success at
age 42. He's ranked No. 1 in total driving on the tour, and in his
first win at Colonial shot a third-round 61 in which he didn't have
a birdie putt longer than 13 feet.

He used his wins at Colonial and the Memorial to pay off the
$2.5 million debt he took on to build his town a municipal golf
course 10 years ago. He puts aside 5 percent of his earnings -- of
which there has been $3.5 million this year -- into a scholarship
fund at the David Lipscomb University in Nashville.

Right now, 15 students from his hometown are attending the
school on scholarship because of Perry's success.

When Perry won at Memorial, about 75 friends and family showed
up at the airport to welcome him home. He can already envision what
might happen if he wins the British Open.

''It would be awesome to pack that Claret Jug back home and put
it on the counter in the pro shop for everyone to see,'' Perry
said. ''That would be so neat.''