Jerry Kelly’s adrenaline was flowing so much Thursday he initially forgot to grab his hat and put on the wrong shirt while getting ready to participate in an American Family Insurance Championship pro-am event.
“I did a lot of things wrong today,” Kelly said, “so hopefully I’ve got that out of my system.”
Chances are the Madison native will be just fine. He’s the two-time reigning champion at University Ridge Golf Course, winning the AmFam Championship in 2019 and, after the tournament was canceled the following year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, again in 2021.
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Kelly returns home after winning a PGA Tour Champions event in Iowa last week, a victory that came on the heels of his family receiving great news on the health front. His wife Carol, who is still undergoing treatment after having her cancerous right kidney removed last October, received a clean scan last week.
Even tournament host and Madison resident Steve Stricker knows he’ll likely have to go through his good friend first in order to win the title he so desperately craves.
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The event is scheduled to begin a little after 9 a.m. on Friday and Stricker gets going at 10:50 with a group that includes Jim Furyk and Davis Love III. Next off the No. 1 tee is a threesome that includes Kelly, Fred Couples and Retief Goosen.
“We’ve got to beat Jerry, right?” Stricker said. “That’s the biggest thing, because he’s usually right up there around the top.”
Kelly understands why he’ll have a target on his back this week and even seems to embrace it. He’s also realistic.
So what if he won here last year and two years prior to that? So what if he’s coming into this event on a roll?
“We start at zero every week,” Kelly said. “You can either look at it like you’re tied for first or you’re tied for last when you start the tournament.”
Stricker has admitted perhaps he’s tried too hard to win this tournament in previous years, applying too much pressure on himself to get over the hump. The closest he came was in 2019, when Kelly emerged victorious from a three-man playoff with Stricker and Goosen.
Kelly, meanwhile, has managed his emotions and has done a good job of using the crowd support as fuel. Unprompted, he brought up his pedestrian record in major tournaments while playing on the regular PGA Tour as examples of what he considers actual pressure situations.
He competed in 45 majors, making the cut 24 times with only two top-10 finishes. Kelly didn’t respond well in big moments at times and he admitted as much Thursday as he looked back with regret.
Kelly is an aggressive player and didn’t change that approach in majors, where challenging courses make it risky to attack pins. At U-Ridge or Brown Deer Golf Course, where Kelly never won but posted four top-five finishes at the now-defunct U.S. Bank Championship (Greater Milwaukee Open), he could be himself and play with his foot on the gas pedal.
That’s what he’ll be doing again this weekend, feeding off a crowd that loves him.
“They give me so much emotion and energy on the positive side,” Kelly said, “and I didn’t really dwell on the negative side as much.”
A rainy Wednesday softened the course at U-Ridge and Kelly figures that will favor the long hitters, a group that doesn’t include him. That just means Kelly will have to do what he does best: grind.
“Consistency and persistence,” fellow pro David Duval said when asked what stands out most about Kelly’s game. “Pretty simple. And a lot of guts. I think he’s a gutsy player.”
Kelly was asked if he considers himself somewhat underrated and he told a story about appearing in a Sports Illustrated confidential poll of fellow players as one of the most overrated players in the game and also one of the most underrated. Even now, some 20 years later and in his mid-50s, he got a chuckle about how others viewed his career way back then.
“As long as you’re being talked about, you’re doing something right,” Kelly said. “As long as people are still asking for an autograph, I’ll sign them because it’s going to end soon and I don’t want it to.”
He’s not alone. The gallery will be packed and full-throated this weekend, cheering on one of their guys. Fans don’t want to see it end anytime soon for Kelly, either.
Contact Jim Polzin at [email protected] or 608-252-6473.