Golfer, deacon Perry becomes PGA role model
His quiet, laid-back demeanor doesn’t fit the bill for professional athletes, say reporters who have interviewed him.
In fact, some would consider such behavior a “handicap” for the celebrity lifestyle.
Perry, who described himself to The Associated Press as a “simple guy” who’s had “a simple life,” has earned millions on the PGA Tour. Earlier this year he won two of the most prestigious stops on the Tour — the Memorial and the Colonial. (The latter received media attention thanks to another golfer who participated — Annika Sorenstam).
But Perry, deacon for the Franklin, Ky., church, doesn’t have the ego to match his winnings, friends say.
“He’s the same today as he was the day I got involved with him,” said Ronnie Ferguson, elder for the church in Franklin, a small town near Interstate 65 — about six miles north of the Tennessee border — with a population of about 8,000.
Perry’s winnings have meant substantial contributions to Lipscomb University, Nashville, Tenn. His wife, Sandy, is a graduate and his daughter, Lesslye, is a sophomore, said spokesman David England, who interviewed Perry in 2002 for The Lipscomb News, the school’s alumni publication.
“When I talked to him for that interview, he talked to me like he’d known me all his life,” England said.
But by mid-July “normal guy” Perry ranked No. 19 in all-time PGA Tour earnings with more than $13 million, wrote David Climer, sports columnist for the (Nashville) Tennessean. Perry has used some of his winnings to build the Country Creek golf course in Franklin. He works the cash register at the pro shop when he’s not on tour, and still plays golf with friends, including Ferguson, a self-described “hacker” when it comes to golf.
“It’s hard to realize how good he is. He’s just one of the guys with us,” Ferguson told the Chronicle. “Before he became successful, he said that he would give back to the Lord.”
That’s exactly what Perry’s done, thanks to a deal he struck with Ferguson — a deal that’s on its way to legendary status in golf lore.
Perry was “0-for-2 trying to make a living on the PGA Tour,” wrote AP sports reporter Doug Ferguson (no relation). He narrowly missed earning his spot in the Tour by one stroke in “Q-school,” the program that determines who plays on the tour and who goes back to the practice range.
“He was out of money, out of sponsors, out of luck,” Doug Ferguson wrote.
Perry needed $5,000 for one more shot at Q-school. He went to see Ronnie Ferguson about a loan, though he knew paying it back would be difficult if he failed again to make the Tour.
But Ronnie Ferguson wanted to help, seeing promise in the young golfer. He told the Chronicle that he hoped Perry would become for today’s youth what Byron Nelson was for him.
Nelson, another church of Christ member, won 54 PGA tour events during his career and five major championships, including the Masters in 1937 and 1942.
“The reason I really wanted to help the boy … is because he’s a role model for people, (including those who) don’t come to church,” Ronnie Ferguson said. Today “he is idolized by people who play golf.”
So Ronnie Ferguson found the money to finance what was likely Perry’s last shot at the PGA Tour.
But he gave it conditionally.
“He said, ‘If you don’t make the Tour, you don’t owe me a dime. But if you make the Tour, we’re going to give a percentage back,’” Perry told the AP.
The agreement: Perry was to give five percent of his PGA earnings to Lipscomb. Initially the money went to the school’s golf team, where Ronnie Ferguson played during college.
Then Perry started winning, making it to the Tour championships and pulling down big numbers and endorsement deals. (He’s a “Tour Staff Professional” for golf equipment company Taylor-Made.) Lipscomb’s golf program simply didn’t need all the money Perry was bringing in.
“It’s gone so crazy and I’ve had so much success out there that we’ve turned it into a trust fund …,” Perry told The Lipscomb News. “So now we give scholarship money to kids from Simpson County (Ky.) and still give money to the golf team.”
So far, the money from the scholarship has helped 16 students from the Franklin area, Ferguson said.
Despite his schedule, Perry has stayed as active as possible in the Franklin congregation, overseeing some of the work of the church’s missionaries, minister David Hamilton told the Chronicle.
Perry, a graduate of Western Kentucky University, Bowling Green, was baptized before he married Sandy, his eighth-grade sweetheart, Ferguson said. Sandy Perry “sees her role as keeping the home fires burning,” he said. She runs the house while her husband is away, even teaching children’s classes on Wednesday nights. The Perrys have three children: Lesslye, Justin and Lindsey.
“I knew Sandy when she was a student here, and I remember Kenny when he played golf for Western Kentucky,” Lipscomb golf coach Ralph Samples told the Tennessean. “I’ve played golf with him several times over the years, and he’s the same person now that he was before he started making all this money.”
Perry said that he plans to play professionally a few more years, then cut back to spend more time with his family and church. He said that he believes God has played a role in his agreement with Ferguson — and the success he’s experienced since.
“I believed in myself and had a lot of faith,” he told The Lipscomb News. “I believed that God kind of put me in these positions … So it was something I was going to chase … But if I didn’t try and felt I should have stayed in it a couple more years, I would have regretted that the rest of my life.”
When church members in Kentucky see Perry on TV and hear golf commentators analyzing his somewhat unorthodox swing, “it’s very exciting because you know the kind of man he is,” minister Hamilton told the Chronicle.
“It’s such a joy to see a man who is so faithful do so well.”