HARTFORD, Conn. – While following Jerry Kelly at the University of Hartford, it was quite apparent that he was one gritty, competitive dude and a straight shooter not afraid to speak his mind or show his feelings.
A goateed Kelly certainly demonstrated all of those qualities Sunday when he rallied to win the American Family Insurance Championship for the second consecutive time in his hometown of Madison, Wisc., where Steve Stricker, the U.S. Ryder Cup captain and close friend of Kelly, hosts the tournament.
Kelly, Glastonbury native Tim Petrovic and Patrick Sheehan of Providence, R.I., made Hartford one of only seven colleges in history to have three players from the same team compete on the PGA Tour, and the others were powerhouses such as Texas, Ohio State, UCLA and Oklahoma State.
Kelly was plenty intense and no-nonsense with the Hawks, but neither he nor the others did anything exceptional outside New England, though they did qualify for the NCAA Division I Championship. Kelly had actually headed from Wisconsin to West Hartford to play the no-nonsense sport of hockey but turned to golf fulltime when the club team was discontinued. He had been an all-city ho*ckey selection in high school while playing for Madison East and has said his hockey background might have hurt his golf early in his career because of the aggressiveness it encourages him to bring to his game.
So it’s rather surprising how much golf success Kelly has had since turning pro, especially on the PGA Tour Champions after he needed seven years to reach the PGA Tour out of U of H. He won the Sony Open in Hawaii and Advil Western Open in 2002, the Merrill Lynch Shootout with Rod Pampling in 2006, The Shark Shootout with Stricker and the Zurich Classic of New Orleans in a playoff with Charlie Wie, Rory Sabbatini and Charles Howell III in 2009. He also came up a shot short in his final Travelers Championship appearance at TPC River Highlands in Cromwell in 2016 when Russell Knox made a 12-foot putt to save par and then made perhaps a record celebratory hat toss.
Kelly’s highest Official World Golf Ranking was 18th in 2003, but nine years later, he finished out of Top 125 on the PGA Tour’s money list for the first time in his career, ending the season only $1,809 from retaining a full Tour card. He also finished the year as the 25th highest earning PGA Tour player in history. Instead of going to qualifying school, where his finish would have placed him directly into the final stage, Kelly played the 2013 season using a career money list exemption, 19 places higher on the PGA Tour priority ranking list than the 126-150 category. During his PGA Tour career, he made 616 starts and earned nearly $24 million in 20 years.
Kelly made his PGA Tour Champions debut in the Chubb Classic in February 2017 and notched his first win six months later in the Boeing Classic outside Seattle. In 2018, he won the Mitsubishi Electric Championship at Hualalai and then scored three victories a year later: the American Family Insurance Classic, The Ally Challenge and the SAS Championship. In August 2020, Kelly captured his first senior major title, the Bridgestone Senior Players Championship at famed Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio. With the win, he earned $450,000 and a spot in the 2021 Players Championship, where he missed the cut.
Kelly notched his eighth win on the 50-and-over circuit in his typically gritty manner thanks to a closing, 6-under-par 66 for a 54-hole total of 14-under 202 and a one-stroke victory over Miguel Angel Jimenez and Fred Couples, who missed a 73-foot par putt on the final hole to force a playoff after Kelly had converted from 11 feet in the previous group and made a double fist pump. .The win moved Kelly to the top of the Charles Schwab Cup points standings.
The terrific finish, which included a 12-foot birdie putt on the 16th hole, came after Kelly didn’t have a bogey in the first 35 holes before making double-bogey 6 on No. 18 in the second round to fall two behind Jimenez. But that misfortune hardly deterred the 54-year-old Kelly, who bogeyed the first hole Sunday and then carded seven birdies to become the first back-to-back winner in the event’s five-year history and first on the PGA Tour Champions since 2018.
“Can’t get any better than this,” an emotional and giddy Kelly said to a roaring hometown crowd. “After doubling the 18th hole yesterday and bogeying the first hole, I was reeling a little bit1. … It means so much for me to win around here, and now twice, I’m over the moon. To be able to celebrate with everybody from Madison, everybody from Wisconsin, the great companies that we have here, Exact Sciences and Ameri0can Family, and my family, it means so much to share this stuff.
“I won right after COVID (at the Senior Players Championship in August) and it was a major and nobody was there. It was kind of like woo-hoo. But to really get the feelings up and do it in front of somebody and with people just means so much more.”
After Kelly won in 2019, the tournament was canceled last year because of the pandemic. Now his next stop will be defense of his Senior Players Championship title June 24-27, which ironically1 will be played opposite the Travelers Championship at TPC River Highlands in Cromwell1. But he spent late Sunday afternoon celebrating with more than 20 members of his extended family who welcomed him back to the 18th green so he could hoist the trophy. Kelly first hugged his wife, Carol, and then his 85-year-old mother, Lee, who has become known among her son’s fans for her superstitious practices, including burying bird feathers along courses.
“The birdies grow when you plant the feathers,” Kelly explained earlier in the tournament.
Kelly’s luck dramatically changed early in the final round. After his opening bogey, he birdied the next two h1oles to get on track and then grabbed the lead with three birdies in a four-hole stretch on the back nine. 1He added another with a clutch 12-foot putt on the 16th hole, which was key to holding off the hard-charging Couples, who won the first AmFam in 2017.
Couples’ bogey on No. 18 0dropped him into a tie for second with Jimenez. Kelly’s clutch putt came after his approach shot sailed past the flag onto the fringe of the green. He delicately chipped just beyond the hole, and he coolly knocked in the 4-footer with the sun and pressure bearing down on him.
“It lets you know you can do it in those pressure situations,” Kelly said.
Kelly was in such a joyful mood that he drove his mother’s motorized scooter across the green to talk with reporters. He then pledged to continue the party through the evening and promised his family there was lots of expensive wine to share.
“I think it’s going to be pretty good,” Kelly said. “Somewhere where I don’t have to drive home, I know that.”
Kelly had to be delighted tournament organizers announced a seven-year extension with the course.
“It’s got a lot of opportunities,” Stricker said. “On the back nine, you can make a move if you need to. There’s holes that you can eagle. There’s holes that you can make a good run at birdies. And then, if you don’t play them smart enough, they can jump up and grab you, too.”
Kelly has certainly been playing them all quite nicely, thank you, and just continues to add to a seemingly unlikely pro career. But attitude can sure compensate for other deficiencies, as Kelly proves more and more every year.