It's hard to believe that 10 years have passed since Jerry Kelly was first paired with a rookie golfer named Dustin Johnson playing his first official event as a member of the PGA Tour at the 2008 Sony Open in Hawaii.
The Madison golfer remembers it like it was yesterday.
"DJ almost drove (No.) 16 here," Kelly was saying Tuesday, referring to what is now a 417-yard, par-4 with a sharp dogleg to the left. "That one perked me up a little bit. That was impressive. He took it over the out-of-bounds, over the condos. If I hadn't been watching him all day, I would have said 'Um, you might want to hit another one.' He was 15 yards off the green.
"I knew the tides were a changin' at that point."
Indeed, at age 51, Kelly watched the PGA Tour become what he likes to call a "bomb and gouge" circuit dominated by long hitters like Johnson, who last week came within a few rotations of acing the 430-yard, par-4 12th hole at Kapalua during the final round of the Sentry Tournament of Champions.
Yet, Kelly has stood the test of time over a career that began in earnest in 1993 on what was then the Nike Tour. A year ago, he made the move to the PGA Tour Champions, won twice on the senior circuit (the only rookie to do so) and finished seventh on the Charles Schwab Cup money list.
His presence at the Sony Open in Hawaii for the first full-field event on the 2018 portion of the PGA Tour's wraparound schedule is anything but symbolic. The 2002 Sony Open champ loves Waialae CC enough that — for the first time in his career — he wrote tournament organizers asking for an exemption, which he received, in hopes that he could show he can still be competitive against golf's young stars.
"I'm not here as a figurehead for the (PGA Tour) Champions," Kelly told reporters in Honolulu at a news conference Tuesday. "I'm here to win the golf tournament. Plain and simple. ... It doesn't matter who's here; I feel I can win at this golf course. ... It all comes down to making putts in the end, anyway, and I think I've gotten better, not worse, in the last four to five years.
"If I can put myself in position, then it's just a race from there."
Kelly admitted he has always prided himself in being in position to be a factor on the PGA Tour.
After finishing No. 1 on the Nike Tour money list in 1995, Kelly parlayed a fourth-place finish at the Doral Open early in the season into a solid rookie season in 1996, one that would set the tone for a solid career. He lost in a playoff to Loren Roberts at the Greater Milwaukee Open -- at the end of a crazy week in which Tiger Woods played his first professional event at Brown Deer Park GC -- and finished fourth at the Walt Disney World Classic toward the end of the campaign.
"The first year on the Nike Tour, I missed (my PGA Tour card) by a shot," Kelly said. "The same thing happened the next year and the next year. Finally, I said I'm not going back to Q-School. I took No. 1 and was fully exempt. That was the moment. That was the thing that solidified me. I could set my schedule. I could play in everything and work my way in.
"I look at all the players I felt were better than me that I wanted to beat. I saw them back on the Nike Tour. I saw them on the Web.com (Tour). I saw them back on the mini-tours. I saw them back at Q-School. It fueled me to keep going, not stop. I was going in the right direction. I just needed to keep working, keep working, keep playing. I wound up playing too much to be any kind of fource. But I don't think I had the swing to be a force. I just had the mentality to wear you out."
But then came Dustin Johnson. And Jason Day. And Rory McIlroy. And Jordan Spieth. And defending Sony Open champion Justin Thomas.
"I love where the game is at right now, with the personalities, with the youth, with the games they have," Kelly said. "I had no problem transitioning over to the Champions Tour because of the guys that are up there (at the top of the PGA Tour). I'm glad I got to know them. I'm glad I got to play with them and against them. But it's a different game."