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Strong bond between Aaron Rodgers, Jerry Kelly began at Pebble Beach

8 Min Read

Tour Insider

    Written by Bob McClellam @bob_mcclellan

    Maybe it was nerves. It’s not every day you’re paired with an NFL MVP who happens to play for the team you grew up rooting for and still do.

    So it was that PGA TOUR Champions stalwart Jerry Kelly and Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers were put together at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am in 2013 and arrived at their very first hole, on the Monterey Peninsula Country Club Shore Course. It’s a layout which Kelly readily admits has “always kicked my ass.”

    Rodgers had made his first appearance in the event in 2012. When he arrived for his second appearance a year later, the AT&T Pebble Beach tournament director approached Rodgers and told him he had a new partner for him, and it was a surprise.

    “Immediately your mind goes to is it Tiger or Phil, somebody like that? Or is it some random young guy?” Rodgers said in a telephone interview with PGATOUR.COM conducted prior to the NFL season. “Turned out it was Jerry Kelly. And I was really excited because I’d always wanted to meet him.

    “I'd always known about Jerry. I've been a big golf fan for the last 20 years, so I at least probably knew about him. And then when I moved to Wisconsin, I was aware of kind of all the top athletes in the different sports. And in golf, Steve Stricker and Jerry Kelly, they have been going for a long time. And obviously Andy North, being a big champion of Wisconsin sports and a representative of Wisconsin golf as well. And I was playing in my second year at Pebble Beach. The first year I played with a guy named D.J. Trahan, who was great, awesome. We had a blast, got to play with Jim Furyk and Darius Rucker in the same group, which was fun.”

    The first hole at Monterey Peninsula is a long par 4 with bunkers guarding the landing area off the tee depending on a player’s length.

    "I’m looking at this thing going, 'Yeah, I can carry those bunkers.' It got hit by a gust of wind," said Kelly, a three-time winner on PGA TOUR Champions this season as he arrives at Pebble Beach for this week’s PURE Insurance Championship. “And it didn’t carry the bunkers. It didn’t go in the bunker. It went in a bush right behind them.

    “He proceeds to flare it OB. So he’s done. And he’s thinking, this guy can get me somewhere, anyway. I took two hacks at that thing. I wasn’t even on the green by four (shots). I wind up triple-bogeying my first hole. That’s the way it started.”

    Nonetheless the two became fast friends. They shared a passion for sports. Rodgers is an avid golfer and devours as much golf coverage as he can, from the Korn Ferry Tour to the PGA TOUR to PGA TOUR Champions to the LPGA Tour to the DP World Tour. Kelly, in addition to his Packers fandom and golfing exploits, is a college hockey and NHL enthusiast.

    They also enjoy big meals, good wine and good conversation, which is why Pebble Beach helped cement their friendship. After hitting it off that first year playing together, they decided to continue pairing and began renting a house together for the week.

    Kelly would bring all sorts of items to grill for a “meatfest” as he called it, as well as a few cases of fine wine. As soon as play was done, the golfer, the quarterback and their guests would unwind, prep food, swap stories, laugh and simply revel in the company.

    “We’re big on cooking in,” Kelly said. “We basically get a whole bunch of wine for the week, and the second we get off the course we’re back in the house and we are cracking one open and starting to cook. We're talking about four- or five-hour ordeals. I've gotten better at it. My mise en place (the French term for having all your ingredients measured, cut, grated, sliced, peeled, sliced, etc. before you start cooking) … I can do it quicker.

    “He (Rodgers) and the family are always looking at the watch going, ‘Are we eating before 9?’ Prep is where the fun happens. We make him get up and get chopping, and everybody does their part. It’s kind of cool to see all the personalities working in the kitchen at the same time. It’s fun. You can see where the kind of -- like when he’s in his element and I’m in mine, but then you put us in the kitchen. I’m like, ‘You’re gonna do it that way? How you holding that knife?’ And he’s pushing me out of the way going, ‘I got this.’ Just another way to get to know someone and what they’re like, and we always had a great time.”

    They would go on to play the AT&T together five more times, but to Kelly’s dismay they never made the cut. But the golf took a backseat to building an everlasting bond.

    “He’s been like a brother to me,” Rodgers said. “He has such a big heart, and he loves, you know, providing experiences and special dinners, and being the toastmaster at dinner. He’s just a really, really sweet person, and he and his wife have been great friends to me for a long time.”

    Kelly had no idea it would turn out like it has, how well he would believe Rodgers fits in with his small family unit of wife, Carol, and son, Cooper. But there was the star QB, sitting at the piano with his son or having an in-depth conversation with his wife.

    It wasn’t some celebrity friendship. It has been the real deal.

    “If you had told me when I was a kid that I’d end up friends with a Packers quarterback I’d have thought that I’d won the lottery,” Kelly said. “That's the way those things start (with a random pairing). Whether it's a PGA TOUR player, an NFL quarterback … you don’t stay in touch. You know, you don’t keep doing things together … unless you strike up a friendship. And then it's like yeah, that's what he does. That’s what I do. We’re just two people who enjoy each other's company like that.”

    Kelly will frequently get texts from Rodgers around his PGA TOUR Champions events, and he’ll text Rodgers about his games or recently to give him updates on how Carol has progressed through treatment for kidney cancer.

    “She is an incredibly strong woman, and she is such a devoted wife,” said Rodgers, who has joined Kelly for the past couple of years at the Cologuard Classic in Arizona in February where Kelly serves as tournament ambassador. “She has got such a toughness to her. We are all obviously worried about Carol, especially Jerry. To see her doing better, it's been amazing.”

    Rodgers noted that as the news about Carol got better this year, his pal Jerry started turning in better results. And he’s on target, which is nothing new for one of the most accurate quarterbacks in NFL history. Once her prognosis turned for the better midyear, Kelly began a string of six events starting in the first week of June in which he won three times and only once finished outside the top seven (a T20).

    Besides that run the Madison native has four other top 10s this season and sits fourth in the Schwab Cup standings. He also has a pair of second-place finishes at the PURE Insurance Championship and would love nothing more than to add a title at Pebble Beach to the 11 he already has as a member of PGA TOUR Champions.

    Rodgers has seen Kelly play enough to believe he can win any time he tees it up.

    “The golf game has become robotic; almost everybody has such a very similar swing,” Rodgers said. “Guys can kind of do one thing well, you know, just smash it and try and hit wedges and it doesn't matter if you're in the rough. There's less players like Jerry who are capable of moving the ball both ways, crafty, and rely on their short game and are great lag putters. He just kind of knows how to get the ball around.

    “Jerry was never the longest hitter on tour on the PGA TOUR and the Champions Tour. He’s like 50th in driving distance on the Champions Tour (actually 57th). But he's got an incredible short game, and he has all the shots, you know, low right to left, medium right to left, high right to left, and the same left to right. And I just love his competitiveness.”

    Rodgers and the Packers play in Tampa Bay on Sunday, so it’s tough to say if he’ll be able to watch Kelly at Pebble at all this weekend. And Kelly probably will still be on the course during the game.

    But win or lose, each is likely to hear from the other by Monday.

    “We can tell he cares for us, and we truly care for him and want him to know we’re not talking football, we’re talking life,” Kelly said. “That’s kind of where we’ve always come from. That it’s not ever felt like business.”