HARTFORD, Conn. – When Jerry Kelly chose the University of Hartford to continue his education and sports career, his plan was to play hockey.
But a not-so-funny thing happened on the way from Wisconsin to West Hartford, Conn. The school reduced hockey to a club sport, so Kelly decided to focus on golf.
Kelly, Tim Petrovic of Glastonbury and Pat Sheehan, a native of Providence, R.I., became one of only seven threesomes to play on the PGA Tour from the same college, with the others being a Who’s Who of legendary programs such as Houston, Ohio, Florida and Wake Forest.
The decision to stick with golf has turned into a lucrative decision for Kelly, the personable, outgoing Wisconsin native who specializes in gyrations and body English.
Kelly enjoyed a profitable stay on the PGA Tour, winning three titles and more than $29 million in 611 starts spanning 21 years, including making the cut in his previous two starts in 2020. He also came with a stroke of capturing the 2016 Travelers Championship, but Russell Knox made a 12-foot par putt on the final hole to earn the $1,188,000 first prize. Kelly pocketed $712,800, but if he had won, he likely wouldn’t have defended because he and longtime buddy Steve Stricker host the PGA Tour Champions’ American Family Insurance Championship in their native Madison, Wisc., that was the same week as Connecticut’s biggest sporting event. It was the start of what has become quite the lucrative life for Kelly on the 50-and-over circuit.
Kelly reached major status Sunday in dramatic fashion, making his first hole-in-one on the PGA Tour Champions on the way to a closing 1-under-par 69 for a 72-hole total of 3-under 277 and a one-stroke victory over playing partner Scott Parel in the Bridgestone Senior Players Championship at famed Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio. It was Kelly’s seventh PGA Tour Champions title and earned him $450,000, a five-year exemption in the season-opening Mitsubishi Electric Championship at Hualalai in Hawaii for the previous year’s winners and a spot in the 2021 Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra, Fla.
But none of Kelly’s wins was more dramatic than lucky No. 7. After making a bogey at the 11th hole to fall within a stroke of Parel, Kelly hit a soft cut with a 5-iron on the 181-yard 12th that landed 10 feet short of the cup and rolled perfectly as if he had used a putter.
“Come on,” a beaming Kelly yelled as he walked off the tee and high-fived his caddie. “It’s a long time since I had one of those and a nice late birthday present for (son) Cooper,” who turned 22 on Friday.
When questioned by Golf Channel roving reporter Billie Ray Brown, winner of the 1991 Canon Greater Hartford Open, as he headed for the 12th green, Kelly said, “The wind switched, so I was able to take a little off a 5-iron instead of hit a 6-iron. I did exactly what I wanted and passed my mom and dad in hole-in-ones (with 13).”
But Kelly’s biggest perk was elevating himself to another level as he has now won in each of his first four years on the PGA Tour Champions while earning $6.7 million.
“To win a major out here is huge for me after not even getting that close on the regular tour,” Kelly said. “And I love being able to play in The Players Championship again because I haven’t been there in a while.”
In 2001, Kelly had a two-stroke lead over Tiger Woods entering the final round but shot a closing 73 to fade to a tie for fourth.
Sunday, Kelly, 53, started with a one-stroke lead over Parel, Colin Montgomerie and 2004 Buick (now Travelers) Championship winner Woody Austin. Kelly made a 5-foot birdie putt on the first hole, but Parel birdied the first two holes to pull even. Then after they hit their drives on the third hole, heavy rains arrived, delaying play for 2 hours, 15 minutes.
When play resumed, Kelly made a 4-foot birdie putt to regain a lead that he never relinquished. He and Parel each shot 2-under 33 on the front nine, and Kelly made the first of several key par putt at No. 10, sinking a 10-foot comebacker. At the 11th hole, Kelly’s drive ricocheted off the trees into the rough. He hit his approach 20 yards short and chipped 12 feet short but made the putt for another saving par.
Another hooked drive led to a bogey at No. 11, allowing Parel to get within stroke with a par. But then came the histrionics at the 12th hole that vaulted Kelly to 5-under and three strokes ahead when Parel missed an 8-foot birdie putt.
“That was a dagger to Parel’s heart from Kelly,” said Golf Channel analyst and World Golf Hall of Fame member Lanny Wadkins, winner of the 1992 Canon GHO.
Kelly’s magical putting stroke surfaced again at the 13th hole, where he hit his approach into a bunker, blasted to 10 feet and converted again for par. Meanwhile, Parel hit his approach into the rough but failed to convert a 12-foot par putt to drop five back. He stayed in range when he salvaged pars with putts of 8 and 6 feet at the 14th and 15th holes and made an 18-foot birdie put at No. 17.
Kelly got into trouble on the 18th hole when he hit his drive in a fairway bunker, and his approach hit a tree and dropped into heavy rough. He got his third shot onto the front of the green, ran his 40-foot putt over a mound and 10 feet past the cup and missed the comebacker to finish with his only double bogey of the tournament.
“It never goes as planned,” Kelly said with a smile. “It gets you sooner or later.”
But Parel, who won the Chubb Classic in February but wasted chances to put pressure on Kelly early in Sunday’s round, pulled his approach shot off a tree and into the rough and missed an 8-foot par putt to shoot 70 for 279, one ahead of Montgomerie (71) and Miguel Angel Jimenez (69). Austin shot 73 to tie for fifth at 282. Brett Quigley, a Rhode Island native, had 74 for 291 and a tie for 28th. Petrovic (70) and Billy Andrade (71), another Rhode Island native, tied for 33rd at 292.
But they were mere also-rans to Kelly, an all-ice hockey selection in high school while playing for Madison East. He thought his hockey background might hurt his golf early in his career because the aggressiveness it encouraged him to bring to his game, but he turned out to be proficient in both sports. When he graduated from U of H in 1989 with a degree in finance and insurance, he turned pro later that year but didn’t make it to the PGA Tour until 1996, which followed winning twice, finishing first on the then-Nike Tour money list and being named Player of the Year.
Kelly’s best PGA Tour season was 2002, when he finished fourth on the money list with $2,946,889 after winning the Sony Open in Hawaii and Western Open. His highest Official World Golf Ranking was 18th in 2003, when he was on the U.S. Presidents Cup team, but he didn’t win again until the 2009 Zurich Classic of New Orleans, beating Charlie Wi, Rory Sabatini and Charles Howell III by a stroke.
In 2012, Kelly finished out the Top 125 on the money list for the first time in his PGA Tour, ending the year only $1,809 shy of retaining his full playing privileges. But he finished as the 25th highest earner in history, so instead of going to the qualifying school, where his finish would have placed him into the final stage, he played the 2013 season using a career money list exemption, which was 19 places higher on the PGA Tour priority ranking list than the 126-150 category.
Kelly made his PGA Tour Champions debut in the Chubb Classic in February 2017 and notched his first victory six months later in the Boeing Classic. A month later, he captured the Pacific Links Bear Mountain Championship and added the Mitsubishi Electric Championship at Hualalai in January 2018. He won the American Family Insurance Championship in June 2019, defeating Stricker and World Golf Hall of Fame member Retief Goosen on the third playoff hole. Three months later, Kelly won The Ally Challenge and then captured his sixth PGA Tour Champions title in the SAS Championship thanks to a final-round, 7-under 65.
So 2019 was Kelly’s best season on the PGA Tour Champions with the three victories, a runner-up in the U.S. Senior Open and fifth in the Senior PGA Championship among 14 Top-10 finishes that led to second in the Charles Schwab Cup and money list ($2,382,675) behind close friend Scott McCarron, who won the season-long competition for the first time. Kelly led the Tour in greens in regulation (73.53 percent) and had the third-best scoring average (69.31).
In the reduced 2020 schedule because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Kelly had only one Top-10, a tie for seventh in The Ally Challenge two weeks ago, and earned $127,298 in six starts entering last week. But the victory Sunday vaulted Kelly from 18th to sixth in Charles Schwab Cup standings and gave him a lot more confidence playing the final three months of season, especially after winning on Firestone CC’s South Course, which previously hosted a World Golf Championship that Woods won a record eight times.