AKRON, Ohio — Jerry Kelly approached the first green Sunday expecting to convert a five-foot putt for birdie and pick up one shot against tournament leader Steve Stricker.
That’s not what happened.
With Kelly in close, Stricker controlled a wedge and spun it to within two feet of the flag as the former offered a congratulatory thumbs up.
Still, Kelly’s birdie would have been an opportunity to strike first, but when his putt lipped out, Stricker left the first green with momentum and a five-shot lead. Stricker finished with an even-par 70 in the final round to win the Senior Players Championship by six strokes at Firestone Country Club’s South Course.
“If that would have been a two-shot swing, then oh, yeah, I think there’s a chance it would have been very different,” Kelly said. “That was a great up-and-down.”
The win is the second wire-to-wire victory on the PGA Tour Champions this season, Stricker’s third major on tour. He also secures a spot in next season’s Players Championship.
“I basically played with a lead all the way from the start of the tournament,” he said. “It’s hard to play with a lead, I’m finding that out. You try to be protective of that lead and you kind of get out of your normal routine and your normal way of playing and you make a mistake here or there, and then all of a sudden you feel like you’re going the wrong direction.
“It was a tough day, but it’s worth it in the end, I guess, when you can gut it out and walk away with a win.”
Competitors. Brothers. pic.twitter.com/42AB2JsT3X
— PGA TOUR Champions (@ChampionsTour) June 27, 2021
Stricker had plenty of motivation Sunday afternoon given he lost both of his third-round senior major leads this season, and also two years ago squandered a first-round 64 in this exact event to Retief Goosen.
Still, after the first hole, Stricker admitted he played more defensively with the lead, and though the advantage reached five shots, Kelly continued to battle as his comeback began with a chip in from just off the ninth green.
His caddie, Eric Meller, offered very succinct advice: Knock it in.
After Kelly did, Meller repeatedly pointed at himself. Though Stricker matched from closer, the make rewarded Kelly’s tenacity and refusal to give in.
Kelly, last year’s champion of this event, offered another birdie, emphasized by a fist pump on the par-4 13th and Stricker recorded bogey, good for a two-shot swing.
As Kelly put it, “Game on”.
— PGA TOUR Champions (@ChampionsTour) June 27, 2021
That encouragement did not last as two loose 4-irons did him in, the first on the par-4 14th hole where Kelly tried to go for the “kill shot” and instead landed in the deepest bunker he had experienced all week.
Now three down with three to play, Kelly realized he was out of holes and went for the par-5 16th in two shots, but an unlucky bounce with another 4-iron landed in the water and effectively ended the tournament.
Stricker was able to par each of the final five holes and the two embraced on the 18th fairway, congratulating each other on the battle
“It’s fun to be out there with him, but I don’t like it, you know,” said Stricker. “We’re friends and we’re both trying to beat each other badly, but when we can walk away and still be friends is the cool part.
“It’s hard when you’re playing against your friend out there. I know he wants to beat me bad and I feel the same, but we’re still friends and that’s the nice thing about it.”
Stricker and Kelly were the lone two of the 77 golfers in the field to finish under par. A total of 10 players have finished under par for the tournament in the three years Firestone Country Club has hosted.
BLAKE RETURNS AFTER TWO-YEAR HIATUS
As Jay Don Blake approached an 18th-hole bunker Friday afternoon, he offered playing partner David Frost a high five as the two had landed next to each other, a light-hearted moment in a weekend which involved a mixture of emotions.
Whether it was trying to keep up on foot with John Daly’s golf cart or having a great conversation with an individual when he registered to play, it was that fun which kept it going
“We’ve played years and years of golf,” he said. “You can’t let it get you down, most people would feel fortunate just to be able to play professional golf, compete, get prize money. How do you not be light-hearted if you don’t play well?
“You always want to play as well as you can, but if it doesn’t work then you move forward and then go on to the next week and and work on your game and gives you that encouragement to work harder.”
Though he finished 76th of 77 golfers, Jay Don Blake mostly enjoyed his experience, his first on the PGA Tour Champions in two-and-a-half years, which in part was because he enjoys playing at Firestone Country Club.
Blake was scheduled to compete in next week’s Dick’s Sporting Goods Open, but after how he played on the course, has had a change of heart.
Now he has a different goal in place and hopes that with more work, it is attainable.
“I need a lot of work I need to spend some time I’d like to come back out and play, I don’t know how soon that is going to be,” said Blake. “I’ve got 499 PGA Tour events I’d like to get one more event on the PGA Tour so that’s my strive.”
- Steve Stricker -7
Jerry Kelly -1
T3. Fred Couples E
T3. David Toms E
- Ernie Els +2
Jim Furyk +3
T7. Rocco Mediate +4
T7. Rod Pampling +4
T7. Kevin Sutherland +4
T10. Paul Broadhurst +5
T10. Tim Petrovic +5
For one last time from Akron, Chris Pohl offers photos from his stroll around Firestone Country Club.