AKRON, OHIO — One month ago, friendly rivals Jerry Kelly and Steve Stricker competed at the Principal Charity Classic in Des Moines, Iowa, with the latter offering the former putting tips that led to a victory.
Stricker has long been a friend to his fellow Wisconsinite dating back to junior golf and saw correctible concepts with tempo and setup position.
“I knew he had been struggling a little bit and he just asked me a simple little question, so I knew he was looking for a little bit of help,” Stricker stated. “I’ve been around him so much, I knew his tendencies and I know what he struggles with at times.
“It was a couple of things I told him, and it really struck a chord with him, he’s off and running. I would do it for anybody, especially Jerry. I’m glad it worked, sometimes it doesn’t work and this one seems like it stuck.”
Kelly is seeking his second Bridgestone Senior Players Championship victory, and the first one in front of fans. He’s well on his way, tying for the 54-hole lead with Alex Cejka at 9 under at Firestone Country Club.
“I have 1,000 percent held onto that,” Kelly said of Stricker’s tips, with a smile. “That is everything that I’m doing and it is the reason that my putting is working right now.
“He gave me a gift, there’s no question about it. That’s definitely Steve, you know. He’s going to go out of his way, but we all are. We’ll do that for each other.”
An 18th-hole test awaited Kelly on Saturday as he missed left on his tee shot, but finessed his approach through the green, flirting with the cup. A downhill two-putt secured his par and share of the lead.
“I enjoyed it,” said Kelly. “I told my caddie I wasn’t going to complain about having a straight downhill putt because I was pretty happy to be having a putt. I thought the putt was going to be really fast, it has been in the past. Just put the brakes on but hit a good second putt.”
Wild last hole for @jerrykelly13pga 😳
— PGA TOUR Champions (@ChampionsTour) July 9, 2022
Kelly also considers himself fortunate this his biggest supporter, wife Carol, is back on the road with him after battling kidney cancer. He credits that news as the reason why he was able to win in Iowa, and that it has eased him up, allowing him to have more fun.
Cejka had to battle for his spot on the leaderboard, after recording bogeys on two of his first three holes.
The first-round leader started to right the ship gaining confidence on the par-3 12th hole by coming back to sink a four-foot putt for his par. That got the German into a rhythm as he recorded birdie on four of his last five holes, securing his spot in the final threesome.
Cejka feels at home at Firestone, as he is staying across the street from the course and is going fishing after his rounds. Now Cejka is hoping to reel in a major championship as his biggest catch of the weekend.
“You’ve got to really play with your brain a little bit and also execute the shots,” said Cejka. “You need a good strategy and execute your shots and that’s what I’ve been doing. Just a couple bad shots, but everybody makes bad shots.
“You’ve got to make great recoveries and so far it’s been great and I’m really excited for tomorrow’s round.”
— PGA TOUR Champions (@ChampionsTour) July 9, 2022
Stricker will round out the final threesome Sunday and remained upbeat despite losing his drive on the final hole. The 2021 champion will look to overcome a two-shot deficit to the co-leaders.
“I’ve got a chance tomorrow and that’s the exciting part,” he said. “Again, I didn’t get a lot out of my back nine today, so hopefully we can clean that up a little bit tomorrow all the way around.”
The players will once again go out in threesomes on Sunday with split tees. This leaderboard has been a prolific one of late, as the top four on the leaderboard have won six of the last nine majors.
PUTTIN ON LABRITZ
Rob Labritz has been a feel-good story as a 51-year director of golf, who in December qualified for the PGA TOUR Champions. He has recorded two top 10s, on tour, including his last start at the U.S. Senior Open Championships, plus four top-25 finishes and 11 cuts made in 12 events.
These results have placed him 30th in the Charles Schwab Cup money list.
Now after Saturday, he is four shots back and has potential to make another move in this, his first time playing at Firestone Country Club.
“It is one of the greatest layouts I’ve ever played, and I’ve played them all,” he said. “You’ve got to hit all sorts of shots out here, cuts, draws, you’ve got to be on the right side of the fairway to get to the left side of the flags. It’s just amazing, love it.”
Perhaps the biggest keys to Labritz’s success are fun and positivity.
Labritz maintains that he is having the most fun he has ever experienced and wants to work his butt off to stay make the most of his opportunity and remain on tour.
Golf has been a labor of love for Labritz who has worked hard to find happiness and keep in shape, understanding that every day is a bonus.
“I’m not into the frustration,” said Labritz. “Frustration and me don’t exist. If I shoot 80, I’m still out here doing what I love, doing what I want to do. I want to be here, so I’m not going to get frustrated if I want to be somewhere.”
Already Labritz’s tour mates have welcomed him with open arms, and he is learning from each of them, with hopes that one day he can become a legend in his own right.
For Labritz, the biggest work in progress is relying less on being a teacher and view himself more as a player.
This week’s play has continued his upwards trend, which has shown that he is well on his way.
“I’m starting to get a little more selfish I guess,” Labritz said. “Not in a bad way, but just to kind of get my golf game to the point where I can just keep shooting under par.
“It’s all about getting the ball in the hole out here, so I’m not going to do anything but just try to focus on finding ways to get it in the hole in the least amount of strokes.”
BRIDGESTONE SENIOR PLAYERS CHAMPIONSHIP LEADERBOARD
T1. Alex Cejka -9
T1. Jerry Kelly -9
T3. Steve Stricker -7
T3. Steven Alker -7
- Ernie Els -6
T6. K.J. Choi -5
T6. Marco Dawson -5
T6. Rob Labritz -5
T6. David Toms -5
T10. Woody Austin -4
T10. Cameron Beckman -4
T10. Shane Bertsch -4
PGN’s Zachary Weiss took a stroll around Firestone Country Club Saturday and with help from Colston Cooper, has these pictures from third-round action.