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Steve Stricker, Jerry Kelly renew ‘sibling-like’ rivalry at home for U.S. Senior Open

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Steve Stricker, Jerry Kelly renew ‘sibling-like’ rivalry at home for U.S. Senior Open

    As if Steve Stricker needs a home game.

    The most dominant player on PGA TOUR Champions in 2023 will attempt to win his third consecutive senior major, his fifth title this season in 12 starts and a second championship in his home state in as many months as the 43rd U.S. Senior Open Championship begins Thursday at SentryWorld in Stevens Point, Wisconsin.

    Stricker won the Regions Tradition by a whopping six shots, won the KitchenAid Senior PGA Championship in a playoff and won the American Family Insurance Championship in Madison for which he serves as host by five. It was his first time winning the Senior PGA and the American Family Insurance. He has one U.S. Senior Open title under his belt, in 2019.

    Steve Stricker wins KitchenAid Senior PGA Championship

    If that wasn’t enough, he’s plenty familiar with SentryWorld. Stricker, 56, won the high school state championship there as a junior in 1984, three years after the course opened.

    “It's great to be able to hop in your car, drive up the road to compete here at a place that I won at 39 years ago. It's pretty crazy that all this time has flown by,” Stricker said in a news conference on Tuesday. “Yeah, it's a special spot. This is one of the first golf courses in Wisconsin, kind of like the new design kind of course that we were able to play as junior golfers. So it's pretty special to be able to come back here full circle, right?

    “To play a Champions Tour major out here is pretty neat.”

    The course at SentryWorld, a Robert Trent Jones II design, has been renovated a couple of times since Stricker won it as a member of the Edgerton High School Crimson Tide (which might explain his fondness for the Regions Tradition in Birmingham, Alabama, come to think of it). But he managed to play it earlier this month.

    Steve Stricker during the 1990s giving an instructional clinic at SentryWorld. (Courtesy USGA)

    Steve Stricker during the 1990s giving an instructional clinic at SentryWorld. (Courtesy USGA)

    “It's challenging. The rough is up,” Stricker said. “I was here a couple times over the last couple of weeks, and the rough is up. Fairways are pretty narrow. Depending on how they set it up, it's a legitimate test. It's going to be a challenge.

    “It's in great shape. They haven't played any rounds here since last September, I guess, so it's in pure shape. Looking forward to the start of it.”

    Stricker said a premium will be put on keeping the ball in the short grass off the tee, a trait most often associated with a USGA major setup.

    “Got to hit it in the fairway,” Stricker said. “I think that's going to be the key this week is we have to hit it in the fairway. The rough is thick, unless they've mowed it here the last couple days. It's very thick. It's very penal. If you're going to be playing out of the rough, it's going to be hard to get the ball on the green, first of all, or even close to the hole.

    “First step off of each tee is to get that ball in the fairway no matter how you can. Then there's some scoring opportunities, I think, if you can do that.”

    No one on PGA TOUR Champions has been able to keep score with Stricker this season. He leads the circuit in Scoring (67.2), Greens in Regulation (80.47%), Putting Average (1.677), Scrambling (77.98%), Birdie Average (5.49), Round 2 Scoring Average (67), Round 3 Scoring Average (66.91), Par 4 Scoring Average (3.83) and Par 5 Scoring Average (4.31). He’s second in Total Driving, Round 1 Scoring Average and Par 3 Scoring Average. His lead in the Schwab Cup race is an astronomical $1,416,296.

    Steve Stricker wins by five at the American Family Insurance

    In short, if Stricker is on his game, nothing else really matters.

    He’s forcing every player to raise his game.

    “What Steve is doing right now is special, no question about it,” said fellow Wisconsin native Jerry Kelly, 56, one of Stricker’s closest friends on the Champions Tour. “He is at the top of his game, and I'm sure he's looking at it going, if I would have made that putt, that putt, that putt, I would have won by 12 instead of 6. That's the way we all think. But he is really firing on all parts of his game.

    “The last thing we want him to do is drop off at all. We want him to keep his trajectory going. We need to catch up. So I need to get better. I need to do certain things to get better. That's what somebody going on a heater does for you, is it shows you, whether you want to say your inadequacies, but it shows you how much better you need to be to compete.”

    Kelly came in 10th at the 1984 Wisconsin State High School Championship, seven strokes behind Stricker. They’ve been battling ever since, and their families have become, well, like family.

    “We're very close. We root for each other,” Stricker said. “Our kids grew up together. We don't see a lot of each other at home as much as we probably should just because we're -- once we get home, we're kind of running in different things. I got girls that are playing, so I end up going to a lot of things for them. So we don't probably hang out as much as we probably should at home, but when we do, we have a great time. We enjoy being with one another.

    “Again, that goes way back to junior golf days here at SentryWorld and in our state that I got to know Jerry and be with Jerry. He's a great guy. He's got a great heart, great family, and love the guy. He's a special guy to our family for sure.”

    Kelly is 10th in the Schwab Cup race and has four top-10 finishes in 10 events. He has been dealing with some injury problems, but there’s nothing like playing with Stricker and playing a major at home.

    “I mean, some of the best fights you have are with your brothers,” Kelly said. “That's the way it is. It's kind of like when I was playing hockey at a young age, at 12 years old I had to switch sides of town. Now I'm playing against my brothers that I grew up with, and we had some of the fiercest competition, and then we'd go out and have a beer and have a great time afterwards. Well, not when I was 15.

    “But that's the way it is with Strick and I. I consider us extremely close best friends. I mean, the families are very close. We seriously love each other, yet, man, I'd see him moving up, I want to catch up. If he's behind me in that rare opportunity that I get when he's behind me, I want to keep going. It just makes us both better.”

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