The journey continues
Jerry Kelly, a self-proclaimed 'successful journeyman,' makes his much-anticipated PGA TOUR Champions debut this week
February 15, 2017
By Bob McClellan, PGATOUR.COM
Jerry Kelly always has been the kind of golfer who keeps his Srixons to the grindstone. From the time he made the PGA TOUR in 1996 through the 2016 season, he played in 601 official events.
The Madison, Wisconsin, native, who turned 50 in November, played in at least 30 tournaments 10 times during the 21-year span, topping out at 34 in 1997 and ’99.
By contrast, Kelly’s pal and fellow cheesehead Steve Stricker, with whom Kelly will team for the Bass Pro Shops Legends of Golf (April 21-23; Stricker turns 50 on Feb. 23), played in 405 events in that same period. He never played in more than 27 events in any one season.
It’s not just a contrast in approach, it’s a chasm. But it goes to show what Kelly is … a grinder.
“I was never a dominant player on the PGA TOUR,” said Kelly, who makes his PGA TOUR Champions debut this week at the Chubb Classic in Naples, Florida. “I was probably one of the most successful journeymen to play the game.
“I got a lot or a little out of my game, depending on whom you talk to. One Sports Illustrated article, I’m pretty sure, had a poll that said I was in the top three of most overrated and most underrated. If I would have played less I might have won more. If I wouldn’t have played as much I wouldn’t be in the position I am today, which is fully exempt on the PGA TOUR Champions.”
Kelly is right where he wants to be. He said he identified the over-50 circuit as a goal of his as early as the age of 40. He would play often, make cuts, cash checks, keep his card and climb the career money list. The top 70 players on the PGA TOUR all-time career money list are eligible to play on the PGA TOUR Champions, and Kelly sits comfortably at No. 30.
It’s an oxymoron of an assessment of his career when he calls himself a “successful journeyman.” But damn if it isn’t truer than a Jordan Spieth putt. Kelly won only three times on the PGA TOUR, twice in 2002 and for the final time in 2009 at the Zurich Classic of New Orleans. But he had at least one top 10 in each of those 21 seasons, and three or more top-10s 15 times. He might not have been at the top of every leaderboard, but no one ever had to scroll too far down to find him.
Kelly hopes to find himself atop the leaderboard a little more often as he begins his transition to the PGA TOUR Champions.
“I like the idea of coming out here and competing to win tournaments --the week-in and week-out thing, teeing it up when you know you have a chance,” Kelly said. “On the PGA TOUR I just know I can’t play perfect enough to overcome the deficit of length. The equipment and the bodies using the new equipment … it’s a completely different game.
“Out here it’s more the old-style game. I’m looking forward to playing golf when it’s not mash it and find it. I played a wood wood as a pro. … I’m probably the last exempt player who played wood as pro.”
Interestingly, Kelly has no plans to grind on the PGA TOUR Champions. He sounds as though he’ll have a Stricker-like schedule in his first season.
He attributes that to his desire to follow the developments in the baseball career of his son, Cooper. Kelly still makes his home in Madison, and his son is in his final year at Edgewood High School. The pitcher/outfielder is good enough to have earned some NCAA Division II and III offers, but his dad hopes there might be more out there.
“He’s turned down most of the D2 and D3 schools that have contacted him because he wants a great college experience,” Kelly said. “Growing up in Madison [home of the University of Wisconsin], it’s hard to go to school in the middle of nowhere to get the college experience he’s looking for. He has a great head on his shoulders. He hopes baseball takes him to a great school.
“I’m following him. I’m not worried about me nearly as much as this year. That’s my mantra.”
Edgewood baseball coach Rich Newton said Kelly is a good baseball dad who enjoys hanging out at the ballpark and helping in any way he can.
“I’ve used Jerry a lot to help our guys understand the mental aspects of athletics, and he helps Cooper with that,” Newton said. “He’s very supportive.
“He throws some batting practice when he’s around. He has a decent arm, definitely. I wouldn’t call him pro ready, but he helps us [the Edgewood coaches] save our arms.”
So when Kelly isn’t grinding on the course he’ll be grinding on a high school pitching mound this spring.
“I want to soak up as much as I can before he heads to college,” Kelly said. “I’m going to do something for myself this spring. But yeah, I’ve never not been nose to the grindstone to keep my card.
“This is what I’ve built myself for, though -- to be able to take off and be with my family. I have to take advantage of it. Still, it will be hard to skip tournaments and watch people win when I think maybe I could be up there.”
Kelly is part of an intriguing “rookie” class on the PGA TOUR Champions that includes Stricker and past major winners Jose Maria Olazabal and David Toms.
Toms, for one, believes Kelly will be a threat on the PGA TOUR Champions from day one.
“I think Jerry will do very well,” Toms said. “I think he has a great game for it. He can shoot really low scores when he gets it going, which you need to do out here right off. Friday is a big day. You can shoot yourself out of it the first day in a three-round tournament. So I think he’ll do really well. I think he’ll enjoy the atmosphere. He’s a fun guy, and I think he’ll enjoy everything about this tour and I think he’ll do really well. Once you do that and gain confidence, I’m sure the sky’s the limit for a guy like that.”
Kelly is hardly a bomber off the tee, but he is extremely accurate with his driver. In his final full season on the PGA TOUR in 2016, he ranked 174th in driving distance but third in driving accuracy. He also ranked 66th in greens in regulation but fourth in proximity to the hole.
What does it all mean? It means he hits fairways nearly all the time, and when he hits greens, he hits it closer than the guys he’s playing against. Don’t be surprised if it’s a recipe that leads to victory in his first season.
But make no mistake: Kelly has a shag bag full of respect for the guys against whom he’s about to tee it up.
“People have no idea how good these guys really are,” Kelly said. “They really don’t have a clue. Every time [Bernhard] Langer comes out he’s competitive. When Kenny [Perry] wants to play he gets it done. Strick has been up there [on the PGA TOUR] already this year. David Toms finished the way he wanted.
“You bring the course back down to golfing and these guys can golf their ball. Put them in their element and the champions that they are come out.”