HARTFORD, Conn. – Perhaps it was being reunited with two former University of Hartford teammates for the first time in years.
Perhaps it was having to deal with some aggravating light rain that must have been reminiscent of adverse conditions in which he played growing up in Madison, Wisconsin.
Whatever, Jerry Kelly was at his nearly impeccable best Sunday as he birdied six of the first nine holes, including five in a row, in shooting a 7-under-par 65 that gave him a one-stroke victory over fast-closing, miracle worker David McKenzie in the PGA Tour Champions’ final regular-season tournament, the SAS Championship at Prestwood Country Club in Cary, N.C.
Kelly’s five consecutive birdies on the fifth through ninth holes thanks largely to brilliant iron play tied the longest streak of his career and gave him an outgoing 6-under 29 and a four-stroke lead at 15 under. Kelly consistently hit his approach shots within 10 feet of the hole, except at No. 8, where he made a 50-foot putt for birdie.
The 52-year-old Kelly began the day at 9 under and one behind 2004 Buick (now Travelers) Championship winner Woody Austin and Doug Barron, but he took control with his early histrionics, then made a magical birdie at the 15th hole that solidified his third PGA Tour Champions victory this year and sixth overall.
“I feel great, and I feel healthy,” said Kelly, who battled injuries early in the year. “I’ve been hitting it great, and I had a great lesson with (teacher and brother-in-law) Jim Schuman that put me in good position for this week.”
Kelly maintained his four-shot lead until McKenzie birdied three of the first four holes on the back nine, capped by a 60-foot chip-in at No. 13, to get to 12 under. Austin, playing in the final group with Kelly and Barron, made a 10-foot birdie putt at No. 13 to tie McKenzie, but he closed with four pars and a bogey at the 18th hole for 71-205 and a tie for third with Barron (70) and David Toms (66).
McKenzie, who has no status on the PGA Tour Champions, holed another long putt from 40 feet at No. 15 to get to 7 under for the day and within two strokes of Kelly at 13 under. After five routine pars in which he was playing conservatively, Kelly got fortunate when his pulled drive on the 15th hole went through some trees and stopped in the left rough. He then hit what was Golf Channel’s “Shot of the Day,” a low punch shot from 142 yards under a limb, his ball curling right to the back of the green to within 10 feet of the cup. Moments after McKenzie made a 10-foot putt to save par at No. 16, Kelly converted his magical shot into a birdie to extend his lead to three and walked to the 16th tee with a sheepish grin.
But McKenzie continued his magical run when he holed a 40-foot bunker shot for eagle 3 at No. 17 to get to 9 under for the day and within a stroke of the lead at 15 under. Kelly narrowly missed a 15-foot birdie putt at the 16th hole, but he made a brilliant two-putt birdie from 65 feet at No. 17, his first putt breaking 15 feet over a slope.
McKenzie stayed alive with a 10-foot par putt at the 18th hole for 63, but that wasn’t quite good enough despite Kelly three-putting from 60 feet for his only bogey of the day.
“I didn’t really think about what position I was in because being able to do this is a bonus,” McKenzie said. “I have no status out here, so just being here is terrific.”
It was the 12th Top-7 finish in 19 starts this year for Kelly, who earlier won the Ally Challenge and American Family Insurance Championship in his native Madison, Wisc., finished second in the Regions Tradition, tied for second in the U.S. Senior Open Championship and Mitsubisha Electric Classic, finished third in the Principal Charity Classic, shared third in the Mitsubishi Electric Championship at Hualalai and Boeing Classic, finished fifth in the KitchenAir Senior PGA and tied for seventh in the Insperity Invitational and Mastercard Japan Championship.
Kelly solidified second place in the Charles Schwab Cup money standings behind close friend Scott McCarron, who birdied four of the last eight holes, including the 18th, to shoot 67 and tie for eighth at 207. Kelly also won the PGA Tour’s Sony Open in Hawaii and Advil Western Open in 2002 and the Zurich Classic of New Orleans in 2009 and finished second by a shot to Russell Knox in the 2016 Travelers Championship.
Kelly’s two former University of Hartford teammates in the field had varied success. Glastonbury native Tim Petrovic holed a 25-foot putt from the fringe on the 18th hole to shoot 68, his best round of the week, to tie for 12th at 8-under 208 before heading to the playoffs with Kelly. Patrick Sheehan, who was born in Providence, R.I., and has been on secondary tours the few years, also shot his best of the week, 68, to move into a tie for 60th at 219.
Rhode Island native Billy Andrade shot 71 for 214 and a tie for 36th, while 1998 Canon GHO champion Olin Browne and 2009 Travelers Championship winner Kenny Perry tied for 46th at 216 after shooting 71 and 70, respectively. David Frost, winner of the 1994 Canon GHO, had 74 for 219 and a tie for 60th.
The Charles Schwab Cup playoffs begin Thursday with the Dominion Energy Charity Classic at The Country Club of Virginia in Richmond, Va. The three-event series ends Nov. 7-10 with the Charles Schwab Cup Championship at Phoenix Country Club in Phoenix, Ariz. The Charles Schwab Cup is a season-long, earnings-based competition launched in 2001 to determine the PGA Tour Champions’ top player.
J.J. HENRY FALLS TO 61ST
Fairfield native J.J. Henry, with 1988 Canon Sammy Davis Jr.-GHO champion Mark Brooks carrying his bag, made his first check of the 2019-20 PGA Tour season after missing the cut in his first two starts. He bogeyed three of the last six holes to shoot 3-over 75 and finish tied for 61st at 1-over 289 in the Houston Open in Humboldt, Texas.
Henry, the only Connecticut native to win the state’s biggest sporting event in the 2006 Buick Championship, now lives in Fort Worth, Texas, where Brooks grew up. Brooks, 58, who has worked and taught Henry off and on since 2012, is playing a limited PGA Tour Champions schedule after winning seven PGA Tour titles, including the 1996 PGA Championship in a playoff with 2009 Travelers Championship titlist Kenny Perry, and losing a playoff to Retief Goosen in the 2001 U.S. Open.
Henry, 44, is in his 20th year on the PGA Tour and trying to regain his form after losing his card when he missed 16 of 22 cuts and finished with a career-low $177,222 in the 2018-19 season. Until then, Henry was one of only three American-born PGA Tour players to finish in the Top 125 and retain his card since 2001. Last season also was when Henry became the first player to take advantage of a one-time PGA Tour exemption for those who made at least 300 cuts that was six priority positions higher than the past champions category.
At the other end of the spectrum, Lanto Griffin won his first PGA Tour title with a clutch 6-foot comeback par putt on the 18th hole to shoot a 3-under 69 for 14-under 274 and a one-stroke victory over Scott Harrington and Mark Hubbard.
Griffin hit his drive on the final hole into the right rough to make sure he stayed away from water on the left that gobbled up the third-most drives on the 18th hole of a PGA Tour tournament last year. His approach shot found the right back edge of the green 57 feet from the cup, and he lagged his first putt down a slope and 6 feet past the hole. After lengthy deliberation with his caddie, Griffin made the comebacker, dropped his putter as the ball disappeared, broke into tears and hugged his girlfriend.
It capped a roller-coast finish of four birdies, two bogeys and the decisive par in the final seven holes.
“I felt eerily calm on the 18th hole,” a still emotional Griffin told Golf Channel on the 18th green. “I knew if I made bogey, I still had my PGA Tour card for next year. I missed some putts on the back nine, but I’m really proud of the way that I hung in there.”
The calm likely came from being named after a spiritual master, Lord Lanto, and being very thankful for his balanced upbringing.
Griffin, 31, of Mount Shasta, Calif., has two wins on the Korn Ferry Tour and one on the PGA Tour Latin America. Entering the tournament, he had missed 17 of 32 cuts on the PGA Tour and earned only $1,482,807 in his nine-year pro career. He never won a tournament at Virginia Commonwealth University, ran out money in 2014 while playing the mini-tours and nearly gave up the game because of frustration.
Griffin has never eaten red meat, with his diet consisting of fish and poultry. He is involved with the Boys & Girls Club of Roanoke Valley in Virginia because he “enjoys helping local kids who need some guidance.”
The kids would be proud of how clutch that Griffin was on Sunday, especially the 18th green.
Harrington and Hubbard also were seeking their first PGA Tour win. Harrington, 38, of Eugene, Ore., had seven birdies in a 67, which ended with a roller-coaster of four birdies, two bogeys and a par at the 18th hole. Hubbard, 30, of Denver, Colo., had two birdies and an eagle 3 in the first eight shots but shot 1 over the rest of the way to close with 69. He missed a 25-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole and then watched as his friend and playing partner in the final twosome sank the winner.
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