Kenny Perry's suddenly a hot autograph at the PGA Championship. With no Tiger, it's the Kenny Perry show at surreal PGA Championship at Oakland Hills

BLOOMFIELD HILLS, Mich. - You'd think the crowd at Oakland Hills Country Club is delirious from having driven metro Detroit's always-under-construction highways or something.

There's a group of them screaming, "Kenny!" and calling out, "You're my favorite golfer, man," as a longtime obscure PGA Tour player makes his way off the putting green. "Sign my golf ball, and my collection will be complete," one middle-aged lady yells.

Kenny Perry himself even has to shoot a dubious gaze at that one. So, this is what it feels like in upside-down world?

With Tiger Woods still out, resting that knee he further ripped apart in the U.S. Open, with no one stepping up to catch golf fans' attention in the major since (sorry, Padraig Harrington), Kenny Perry inexplicably finds himself the focus of a whole lot at the PGA Championship. Perry's not just the 47-year-old everyman who has won three times on tour this year to turn his not-so-long-ago-longshot Ryder Cup quest into a runaway romp. He's the man of major mystery; the only real contender in the field who will be playing his very first major of the year.

How Perry reacts to big event pressure when the PGA Championship starts Thursday might just be the major question.

Of course, before Perry can get to that, he has to answer more and more questions about his decision to skip the U.S. Open and British Open, even though he'd played well enough to qualify for both. (Perry missed the Masters because he started the season 102nd on the money list).

"For 22 years nobody cared where I played golf," Perry said, chucking. "Now, all of a sudden, everyone was worried about, 'Oh, he's not going to the British. Oh man.' ... To tell you the truth, it was ... you know what, I just couldn't believe it.

"To me it was a compliment."

It's now put Perry squarely in the spotlight of a major - a glare he admits that feels anything but normal to him. Sure, Phil Mickelson received some major sports talk radio time for his late collapse at Firestone leading up to the PGA. Mickelson also brought back memories of his curious no-driver decision at the U.S. Open when he opined that "having golf be an Olympic sport is exponentially more important to the game of golf than the majors."

Which lead Ian Poulter to remark, "You can certainly look into it too deeply and change what you know," when asked if Mickelson outsmarts himself.

The PGA Championship hasn't been about Phil, though. At least not yet.

The Sergio Garcia-Anthony Kim-Camilo Villegas grouping the first two days at Oakland Hills will surely draw some attention as it happens, too. But so far, the PGA Championship's mostly been about Kenny Perry. At least when the talk centers on the actual tournament and not the build up to September's Ryder Cup Matches.

Will Oakland Hills be a bloodbath?

While everyone wonders about Perry, he's wondering what happened to under par in majors.

Oakland Hills' famed Donald Ross South Course is set up as a tough, long, 7,395-yard beast of a par 70. Perry is just one of many players predicting the winning score will be well over par. If that happens, three of the four majors this season will have been won with over-par scores. The lone exception: the U.S. Open, which Woods won at 1-under.

As Perry stares at par 3s that he says he'll often hit 3-wood into, he questions if that's good for the game or golf fans.

"When was the last time you ever saw anybody come from behind and win a major?" Perry asked. "The winner always comes from the last two groups. The courses are set so tough now that you can't come out early in the round and post a low number to catch somebody. It just doesn't happen.

"I would definitely like to see more birdies. I would like to see the opportunity to at least have a chance on Sunday to catch up."

Perry said this after a practice round played on greens that are running much slower than the PGA of America projected. If Oakland Hills' greens are pushed up to a 12 on the stimpmeter, which was the pre-tournament goal number, Boo Weekley predicts "a bloodbath." And he's not the only one.

"They haven't even sped the greens up," Perry said. "If they do, it would be a little over the top with all the slopes and swales out there."

Don't expect Perry to take it a step farther and rip on the PGA of America, though. He's the organization's dream golfer, the one who calls the PGA Championship "my favorite major." For a major long saddled with that fourth-major tag, that's about as sweet as it gets.

Perry's made the cut in 16 of the 17 PGA Championships he's played in. For most of his career, just making the cut in a major was cause for celebration. Perry only came close to winning one of those PGAs, though. Now people are expecting him to contend this week, to make a real run.

Otherwise, the man who misses majors will face doubts about his big-stage game.

"I think he'll be all right," Weekley said. "It's still the same game. No matter how much stuff they put up."

Is it? Kenny Perry might find himself as the test case, willing or not.

August 6, 2008

Chris Baldwin keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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