Following Jerry Kelly around the Donald Ross masterpiece

by Brian Clarey

Friday afternoon at Sedgefield Country Club, and the heat wraps up the golf course like a blanket fresh from the dryer.

It’s Day 2 of the Wyndham Championship and the field is starting to settle down. Grimsley High grad Carl Petterson, the eventual winner, has already logged his Wednesday score of 64, six under par, and today he’ll increase his separation from the pack by another nine strokes, setting the course record, 61, in the place where he grew up and jumping to 13 th position on the FedEx Cup standings in the week before the championships. But there are hundreds of stories out here on the clipped grass, many involving rising stars and fading champions. Somewhere in between lives Jerry Kelly, the 41-year-old duffer from Madison, Wis. Who is playing out what is, for him, a mediocre year. Oh, sure, he’s doing better than you and me — Kelly made more than $1 million in purse money this year and he’s easily earned enough points to qualify for the FedEx Championship that begins this weekend, but he hasn’t won a PGA event since 2002, when he took two of them, and he has yet to crack the top 30 in the FedEx Points standings, where the big money is. He came in at four under par on the first day, and while Petterson makes his record breaking assault on the Sedgefield links, Kelly takes to the first tee on Thursday, addresses his ball, plants his feet. His backswing is smooth, and just after his body weight subtly shifts to his front leg the head of his wood makes a clean tick that sends the ball 300 yards down the fairway. Kelly looks the role of a blue-collar Midwesterner, with a ruddy Irish face, lumpy nose and prominent chin. A slight belly juts over his belt and there are wrinkles around his eyes from watching golf balls arc into the afternoon sun. He pars the first hole and then collects three birdies at 2, 3 and 4 on the strength of good iron work and clean putting. He carries par all the way to the 9 th , where a bogey puts him at 6 under par. It’s not where he wants to be. His saving grace on the back nine comes at the par-5 15 th , where he drives to a fairway bunker, carries the water hazard and lands on the green in two strokes, more than 63 feet away from the cup. A long, serpentine putt drops for an eagle, jolting the grandstand and reinvigorating his game. Another birdie on 17, a par 4 with the smallest green on the course, puts him at 9 under for the day, a respectable score after Day 2 in most PGA tournaments, but Petterson finished the day at 15 under and, barring a major meltdown, there is no way Kelly can catch up. That’s the bad news. The good news is that he made today’s cut. Golf is a hard game, a contest of patience and inches, a study in nerves and near-misses. Kelly’s been on the tour since 1996 and he’s a solid player — a good fairway scrapper who can get out of tight spots and putt big when he needs to, with four top- 10 finishes in his career, including a couple PGA tour wins, and enough earnings to put him at 27 on the active player’s list with nearly $18 million in career winnings. But he’s got to work for it. Smart money bets against Jerry Kelly — against all the Jerry Kellys of the world, really, when they’re stacked up against the Tiger Woodses, Phil Mickelsons and Davis Loves out there — but the former hockey player is hungry, a scrapper. He picks up another two strokes on Saturday, 11 under par, and on Sunday afternoon he tees off in a tie for fifth place.

A couple missed fairways, a few botched putts. He’s 13 under with nine holes to go, but if a couple of those putts had gone his way he could be right up there near the top of the leader board, where Petterson is duking it out with Scott McCarron somewhere around 20 under par. A birdie on 11 puts him at 14 under, and a blown birdie putt on 12 makes him swear.

On 15, a hole he’s been crushing all week, the site of his magnificent 63-foot putt, he captures another birdie. But on the short par-3 16th his approach bounds off the front of the green and rolls downhill, away from the cup. At 13 under, he’s safely ensconced within the top 10, but each stroke he can shave off his game here means another $50,000 in winnings. Hole 17 doesn’t do it for him. He tees the ball high on the 18th , a 500-yard par 4, and smacks it with his big driver about 330 yards, leaving him with an uphill shot to the green and the gallery of fans waiting for him to get it over with so they can watch Petterson and McCarron hole out. Kelly greens it from the fairway and then he’s looking at a 10-yard uphill putt for birdie. He reads the green. He flattens the path to the cup with his club. He takes a couple practice arcs and then approaches, draws back the blade of the putter and taps the ball against the break of the green. It rolls… it rolls… it rolls, drawing closer to the hole and then closer still. The gallery holds its collective breath and Kelly stands watching this $50,000 putt come to its end. The ball glances past the cup and rolls on past. He ties for ninth place, with winnings of $122,400. Not bad for a week of playing golf, but not good enough for Jerry Kelly.

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