AKRON, OHIO — Jerry Kelly stood in the rough beside a tree on Firestone Country Club’s 13th hole needing something to happen as like last year’s Bridgestone Senior Players Championship, he was down two shots on the back nine to Steve Stricker.
Kelly quickly reflected on the advice his wife Carol, who has battled kidney cancer and as was the case a month earlier in Des Moines, it placed things on the course in perspective.
“She just said ‘it doesn’t matter what happens, I want to see the attitude up the entire time,'” Kelly said.
“The lid was on the hole for a long time, and I was rolling my eyes, but I was doing it with a
smile on my face like I used to a little bit more and that was keeping me in a positive frame of mind knowing that it would come to me because of that.
“That was all her with that attitude.”
Faced with trouble and some disappointment from repeatedly missing double-breaking putts, Kelly was hoping to keep par in place and keep the positive attitude flowing, but instead hit a shot he considered his “shot of the tournament,” knocking his approach within a few feet and converting a birdie.
Stricker bogeyed the very same hole and all of a sudden, the pair were tied with Alex Cejka, who had held the lead for much of the front nine.
“It was a big change there and not a birdie hole you would expect to begin with, certainly not with the position we were in the right rough by the tree,” Kelly’s caddie Eric Meller said.
“Sometimes that’s just how the shot comes out. We hit it right in the bank to get lucky and finally had a putt that was not a double breaker, something that was easier to read, and then with the Stricker bogey, that turned the tides a little bit.”
Kelly would ride that momentum with two additional back-nine birdies to win his second Bridgestone Senior Players Championship by two shots over Stricker.
— PGA TOUR Champions (@ChampionsTour) July 10, 2022
With some newfound momentum and Carol’s advice, Kelly was off to the races.
“Just having one go in instantly frees the mind a little bit,” said Meller. “You know you’ve been close, staying patient and when yes, the result shows up, then you can start to think that now they are going in.”
Kelly kept that momentum going on Firestone’s infamous par-5 16th. In last year’s final round, Kelly tried to press on the hole in an effort to catch Stricker, opting for the home-run swing, but he had to watch as the ball to a splash in the infamous pond protecting the green.
This year, again with Stricker watching his every move, the pair had their third shots nearly touching on the green. Stricker was away first and it allowed for Kelly to get a read.
With Meller’s guidance, Kelly’s ball found the hole and broke a tie with Steven Alker, the Charles Schwab Cup points leader, who was unable to answer in the closing two holes.
“We know if he makes a read and you see the line on it, it’s a good one,” Meller said of Stricker. “It was a slightly different line, but it was enough for Jerry to get a read and in it went.”
One by one, Kelly’s closest pursuers began to fall off. First Cejka, who had been holding onto his game in the front nine, bogeyed the 10th hole, one of four squares on his back-nine card.
Ernie Els was a shot back heading to the 16th hole, when he blasted his third shot over the green. Despite getting free relief, so he could take his club fully back, his fourth just missed trickling down the hill toward the hole. With his bogey, he ran out of holes.
Alker would bogey the last hole, and Stricker’s studious effort over his putt on 18 was just off the mark, freeing Kelly to earn his 10th PGA Tour Champions victory, and earning an automatic spot in next year’s Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass.
“The first major is awesome, but the second one, even more validation,” Kelly said. “I’m really excited to go back to Sawgrass next March. That was a big piece of the desire in winning this tournament. That’s one of those great things that we have with our majors that we can get to go play at the high point of golf. It’s always such a great tournament at a great golf course like this and to come out on top’s pretty cool.”
Kelly’s victory is also the lowest score to par in this fourth edition the major has been contested at Firestone Country Club, with the rough down this year leading to an uncharacteristic 21 scores below par.
When he described Kelly’s journey towards this second Senior Players Championship, Meller’s smile quickly revealed some honesty as he told friends before the pair’s 2020 triumph that he did not feel this was a course they he could heavily bet they could win on.
“Once we did and obviously the course has played differently, you have to be at the right place in the fairway and have a good short game, which Jerry has,” Meller said. “Once we did have that win you start believing in it. Last year we were in the last group and close and the course was firm and fast then. You could go more at it this year. Now it’s one we just look forward to coming to and expect good things.”
As Meller and then Kelly hugged each other’s wives, the former reflected on what has been mutual success with plenty of emotion, freedom and smiles to go along with it.
“Anyone who didn’t know the story towards the end of last year, would’ve thought ‘what’s wrong with Jerry Kelly,” Meller stated. “This game is more than a physical game, it’s a mental game. What she’s battled through, she’s tough as nails when it comes down to it.
“She’s pushed Jerry to go play and do his thing and she’s come through with good reports. It’s been tremendously freeing this year.”
BRIDGESTONE SENIOR PLAYERS CHAMPIONSHIP FINAL LEADERBOARD
- Jerry Kelly -11
Steve Stricker -9
T3. Steven Alker -8
T3. Ernie Els -8
T5. Steven Ames -6
T5. Woody Austin -6
T5. Alex Cejka -6
T5. Ken Duke -6
- David Toms -5
Marco Dawson -4
— PGA TOUR Champions (@ChampionsTour) July 10, 2022
PGN’s Zachary Weiss again took to the course with some shots of Sunday’s final round of play. A golf clap is definitely deserved to Colston Cooper who assisted with the images.