PHOENIX -- Naturally, the last word on the last day as a rookie on the PGA Tour Champions belonged to Jerry Kelly, who was the first to say that -- while it is nice to know he is virtually a lead-pipe cinch to be named 2017 Rookie of the Year -- he has much bigger goals in 2018.
“Like I told somebody else, I can start out as DROY but I want to be POY,” Kelly said.
Eight shots separated Kelly from that distinction Sunday, but it felt more like six degrees of separation that kept the Madison golfer from the Charles Schwab Cup Championship. That honor went to Kevin Sutherland, who was Kelly’s playing partner in Friday’s opening round when Kelly (68) had the upper hand on him by one stroke before their fortunes changed.
Sutherland shot 63-66 the last two rounds and, with a 15-under-par 198 total, edged Lee Janzen (68) and Vijay Singh (64) by a single stroke to win both the final leg of the Charles Schwab Cup Playoffs and the overall title over Bernhard Langer (64), who tied for 12th. Meanwhile, Kelly dropped from No. 6 to 7 in the final Schwab Cup standings after closing 73-65 -- the latter number taking some of the sting out of the former -- but a bogey/par finish to an otherwise brilliant round on a sun-splashed Sunday sent him into the senior circuit’s nine-week hibernation hungry to work hard to be ready for 2018.
“It’s perfect for me to finish that way,” said Kelly, who hit the first 16 greens in regulation before coming up short of the green on No. 17 with a sand wedge and missing a 10-foot putt for par. “If I would have birdied the last two and shot 9-under, it just wouldn’t have been as satisfying as me screwing up the last two holes to need me to fight in the off-season and come back stronger.”
Kelly admitted afterward that kind of adversity “makes me feel normal,” as well it should.
He spent the last three weeks dealing with the cumulative effects of leg and back pain. Kelly tried to find a swing that would minimize the pounding on those areas of the body and allow him to ride a wave of confidence from a pair of victories (the Boeing Classic and the Bear Mountain Championship) late in the season after he put new Srixon irons and a Cure putter into his bag.
Playing alongside American Family Insurance Championship winner Fred Couples, who shot a 9-under 62 -- one shot off the competitive course record -- to finish tied for 12th, Kelly seemed as relaxed and pain-free as he has been since the start of the Charles Schwab Cup Playoffs.
He birdied No. 1 (after Couples had eagled the short par-5) and then parred his way to No. 7, where he made the first of back-to-back birdies to make the turn in 3-under 33. He vaulted to 6-under for the week with one swing of the club on the par-4 10th hole, where his 7-iron from 187 yards onto the front apron and saw the ball make a bee-line for the cup and an eagle 2.
“I was just happy not to have to putt,” said Kelly, who missed another handful of birdie putts inside of 15 feet in the final round. “Putting still doesn’t feel comfortable; I’m still not there. I’m not sure what I was doing that month (when recorded his two victories). That month, when I started with this Cure putter, I was just making everything. I was great. I was stable.”
In the weeks since, though, Kelly struggled with the flatstick. Officially, he had 28 putts each of the three rounds at Phoenix CC but it was a lack of rhythm on the greens that frustrated him.
“I just haven’t been stable,” he said. “I have not done well with my body and my stroke. It’s something along the lines of what I figured out with the swing. Hopefully, it gets better. It will get better.”