Sometimes, tour golfers have a hard time adjusting to the PGA Tour Champions and letting go of the PGA Tour.
While he may dabble in the regular tour, Jerry Kelly is among those guys but don’t count him out.
If his performance on the Champions Tour in his first year is any indication, Kelly has good reason.
Kelly, 51, won the Rookie of the Year and two tournaments, then added the season-opening Mitsubishi Electric at Hualalai two weeks ago. It was second victory in Hawaii; he won the Sony Open on the regular tour in 2002.
“When I won the Sony it was the first tournament of the year, the first full-field event—Kapalua (the tour’s tournament of champions event) is before that—I still wasn’t No. 1 on the money list when I came out of there,” Kelly said last week. “So this is officially the first time I’ve ever led a money list besides the Nike Tour. It’s kind of cool. It’s just another ‘first’ type of thing. I’d like to to be more than after just the first week, but it’s still kind of cool.”
Kelly had a true offseason, not picking up a club for months, then prepared a week before this year’s Sony Open, where he tied for 14th.
“I’m usually really ready so this was different,” Kelly said. “I was worried. (The results in the two tournaments) just makes me feel good. … If I would’ve putted halfway decent, I could’ve won the tournament (at Sony). I put a new putter—the same type of putter as my old one, but a new one—and I putted terrible.”
While Kelly was in the Mitsubishi for the first time as a tournament winner, it wasn’t the first time for him at Hualalai—“I was a rookie in the tournament, but I wasn’t a rookie on that golf course,” as he put it—and that also gave him some confidence.
That was new because for most of the past year, Kelly has gone through a typical rookie’s learning curve, seeing course after course he’d never played before. So the Chubb Classic, where Kelly made his tour debut, will end that cycle.
“I’m really looking forward to coming back to Naples,” he said. “That’ll be my first tournament where I’ve played the course. Twenty-two years of me playing the same courses on the PGA Tour, it didn’t matter how big and strong and how young and fearless these guys were, I knew how to get the ball around the golf course the fewest amount of strokes for me. It wasn’t the same road map. It’ll take a younger player two, three, five years to find their best way to play that golf course.
“So I missed it in a lot of spots this year that I’m like ‘Yeah, I’ll never do that again. I’m certainly not going over there again— that sucked.’ It’s just the type of stuff that you learn. You don’t know what experience is until you get it.”
So when he gets to TwinEagles, he’ll already have “played” the Talon Course layout.
“I can mentally go through the golf course before I get there,” he said. “That’s invaluable. I’ll get another 20 practice rounds in my brain before I even set foot and play a regular practice round.”
Kelly had plenty of that kind of experience on the regular tour. While he only had three victories—two of them in 2002—he had 91 top-10 finishes and won over $28 million. In his last full tour season in 2015-16, he had a second-place finish at the Travelers and was 72nd in the FedEx Cup rankings, so he came into the Champions Tour more than ready.
Kelly tied for third at the Chubb Classic in his tour debut, and was top 15 or better in seven of his first nine events. He hit a bit of a rough patch after a tie for 12th in the US Senior Open, but came out of it with his first victory at the Boeing Classic. He tied for sixth the next week, then won again at the Pacific Links Bear Mountain Championship. He was second at Pebble Beach and ended his year with a sixth.
Kelly downplayed winning the Rookie of the Year a bit.
“There’s not like 30 to 35 of them,” he said, referring to the larger rookie class on the regular tour. “It’s still a testament. They’re all still great players. (Bernhard) Langer won four times and led the money list his rookie season, so it definitely pales in comparison.”
While Kelly didn’t pick up a club for months in the offseason, he did get back to more of a workout regimen.
“I went and traveled with my son and took him to school and baseball, and did a lot of stuff in between,” he said. “I still played a lot, but that affected my body toward the end of the year. I kind of broke down. So I’m getting back to working with my trainer and being healthy throughout the year—the whole year.”
That year will include a return to the regular tour for the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am next week where he’ll again play with Packers star quarterback Aaron Rodgers. This isn’t a passing opportunity for Kelly to interact with Rodgers, so, for example, Green Bay’s front office upheaval likely won’t be a big topic.