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By CHUCK JONES
LOUISVILLE — The United States team had plenty of pressure entering the 37th Ryder Cup as it tried to win for the first time since 1999.
Two players — Kenny Perry and J.B. Holmes — not only had to deal with that, but they quickly became the faces of the team, considering both were playing in their home state of Kentucky.
“You know what, these two guys, they embraced the pressure; they embraced the crowd,” U.S. captain Paul Azinger said. “They came in here with an attitude of everything to gain and they exploited it, and they played terrific golf, both of them, and I think Kentucky should be proud of maybe the two best … I don’t know, I won’t say that, I don’t know who all has come from Kentucky that’s played this game. But these two guys are unbelievable, and a lot of heart.”
Perry and Holmes delivered on one of golf’s grandest stages on Sunday as each won in singles play to help the U.S. to a 16½-11½ victory, its largest margin of victory since 1981.
“I mean, I figured this was going to define my career. But you know what? It made my career,” said Perry, a Franklin resident. “I mean I had great touch, great feel, had great confidence and had a great calm about me today.
“It’s a week I’ll never forget,” he added. “It’s the greatest experience of my life, and I’m just fortunate to put it all together today.”
Holmes, a Campbellsville native, was playing in his first Ryder Cup and he couldn’t have scripted a better ending.
“It’s pretty much perfect,” Holmes said. “I couldn’t draw it up any better. There’s not very many people that even get the opportunity to play in a Ryder Cup, and I’d say even fewer that get a chance to play in their home state and their home country, and then to win on top of it, is just, it’s perfect. You couldn’t draw it up any better at all. It’s unbelievable.”
Hunter Mahan thought Perry, who made it his top priority to make this year’s team since the Ryder Cup was being held at Valhalla in Louisville, made the best of what was a win-lose situation.
“I think I told somebody, I told Kenny this: ‘This is the best worst situation I’ve ever seen because you get to play in your home state; people are cheering hard for you and it’s the worst because you’re going to try so hard,” Mahan said. “I can imagine how hard he’s trying out there. That can hurt you a little bit. But he’s done an incredible job this week; everybody has.”
Perry, fifth to go out Sunday, topped Henrik Stenson of Sweden, 3 and 2. He made seven birdies and one eagle as he took control from the start, building a 3-up lead through five.
“The people here in Kentucky are great, and to come and make seven or eight birdies today and have the putting touch of Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus just was phenomenal,” Perry said. “I mean, I had such a calm about me, and I was just so determined.
“I was in a zone,” he added.
But Perry, playing in his second Ryder Cup, injured his left shoulder prior to making the turn. On the par-5 10th, he hooked his approach out of bounds and his lead shrunk to 2-up.
“I hurt it in the ninth fairway,” Perry said. “I was practice swinging with a sand wedge, and I pulled, pinched something; I had all this shooting like lightning bolts running down my arm, and I thought, ‘Oh, my goodness. What have I done? I started eating Advil like candy, and they kind of kicked in about the 12th hole, and it loosened up a little bit, and I was able to finish. Thank goodness.”
After receiving a massage from a trainer, Perry bounced back to pick up birdies on 11, 13 and 15 to offset losing holes 12 and 14. He finally put Stenson away with a two-putt par on the 16th to halve the hole.
“You know what, we were just kind of counter-punching each other out there,” Perry said.
Holmes, who went out seventh, defeated Soren Hansen of Denmark, 2 and 1. With the match all square through 15, Holmes made back-to-back birdies to secure a point for the Americans.
“Unbelievable. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity,” Holmes said. “I’m glad I got here, and I’m glad I was able to come through for the team.”
In a move that was questioned, Azinger decided to use one of his four captain picks on Holmes.
Holmes showed his belonged by winning two matches and finished with 2.5 points.
“We’ve had some incredible play out of our picks,” Phil Mickelson said. “ J.B. Holmes to birdie 16 and 17 ultimately winning the Cup and when we needed one more point knowing it looked like (Jim) Furyk was going to close out his match, that was great.”
Holmes’ birdie putt on the par-4 17th could have been the point to give the Americans the win, but Furyk missed a par putt on the 16th hole, extending his match.
“Well, as I said earlier, my apologies to J.B. because it would have been his point, actually,” Furyk said. “If I would have sucked it up and knocked that putt in on 16, J.B. would have closed it out on 17.”
With Hansen leading 1-up, Holmes rolled in an 8-foot par at No. 11 to square the match. On the 16th, he hit a massive drive and holed another 8-foot putt for a 1-up lead. Holmes hit another massive drive on 17, which left him a short wedge shot that he spun back to 3 feet of the cup.
“I’m still flying,” Holmes said. “I think I’m higher now than I was out on the golf course, just an unbelievable feeling.”
Holmes will have more opportunities to make a Ryder Cup team, but for Perry, he realizes this was probably his last chance, which made it more special.
“Very emotional,” Perry said. “My dad, my wife, my three kids came out on the green to given me big hugs. I couldn’t hold back the tears. Magical day for me. It’s the greatest day of my life.
“You know I keep telling everybody this is kind of my swan song, and what a way to go out,” he added.
Chuck Jones can be reached