MADISON — Jerry Kelly was ready to hit the road Sunday afternoon.
The Madison golfer three-putted for bogey on the final hole of regulation and was all but certain that, for the second year in a row, he had wasted a golden opportunity to win the American Family Insurance Championship, his hometown event. As he paced back-and-forth before finally taking a seat in the media center at University Ridge, waiting for the inevitable, others were giving him new life on an 18th hole that ripped the hearts out of many.
Duffy Waldorf failed to get up-and-down after missing the green, missing a 3-footer for par and making his only bogey of the tournament, and fell one shot behind. Retief Goosen and tournament host Steve Stricker missed short birdie putts to remained tied with Kelly, the first to post at 15-under-par 201.
After three holes of the first sudden death playoff in the tournament's four-year history, Kelly got up-and-down for birdie from 45 yards out on the par-4 15th hole to beat Goosen. The two-time U.S. Open champion nearly drove the green on the hole, but couldn't navigate a slippery putt from a collection area where the ball settled and was headed for a bogey when Kelly made his putt.
"I didn't see it go in," Kelly said of his dramatic putt. "I looked like it was going going well inside the edge and going in. I turned and yelled."
And, by that point, caddie Eric Meller was hoisting him off the ground.
"I went in for the bear hug," said Meller, who has been on Kelly's bag for 13 years. "He finally got the 'W' here in Wisconsin. I hit the putter pretty good on the way up, but I got him up in the air. It was boa-constrictor-ish, yes."
It was an emotional victory for all parties involved.
For Kelly, it was his fourth career PGA Tour Champions victory but his first since winning the Mitsubishi Electric Championship in January of 2018, two months before his father Jack died at the age of 85. For Stricker, it became a day of mixed emotions as he juggled happiness for Kelly — his friend since their junior golf days in the early 1980s — with the frustration of missing a chance to win the tournament he has helped build into one of the most popular and most successful on the senior circuit in just four years.
Stricker, who missed an 8-foot birdie putt on the final hole of regulation, then horse-shoed a 5-footer for par on the first playoff hole and departed as Kelly and Goosen played on. Officially, it will go down as a runner-up finish for Stricker, who finished third in his own event each of the last two years.
"I had my chances," Stricker said. "I can take some satisfaction in what I did coming in; I hit some good shots when I had to. But, yet I had the opportunity to make the last putt and win it all and that stings a little bit.
"But to see Jerry win it, a Madison guy and a friend of mine since junior golf, I can smile at that and be happy for him. It was cool to see."
As it had all weekend, the leaderboard featured various combinations of the world's top over-50 golfers at the top as — for the fourth year in a row — its winner came from behind over the final (and again unforgettable) 18 holes.
Kelly, the runner-up by a shot to Scott McCarron a year ago, was two shots behind third-round leader Steve Flesch when the day began (early due to the threat of stormy weather). Kelly made seven birdies and his lone bogey on No. 18, where his 10-footer for par kissed the edge for a three-putt bogey.
"I hit a great second putt," Kelly said of his last putt of regulation. "It's one of those things; if I wouldn't have hit that putt the way I did, I probably wouldn't have made that putt in the playoff. I'm thankful I got that second chance when you're the one who kind of fails (to convert) to let guys in it."
So was Meller, who kept his distance from his player as the others finished.
"He was pretty much pacing up-and-down the hall and I was watching to see what would happen," Meller said. "He was being Jerry and I was just trying to breathe in and be me. And, in the end, it worked out."
Goosen's short putt on the 54th hole horse-shoed out much like Stricker's in the playoff. Stricker's short birdie putt in regulation curled left at the end.
"I was sitting right here (in the interview area) when Goosen missed so I figured I'd better come back and sit right down here when Strick was putting just in case I had to talk with you guys again," Kelly said. "I was here for you. I wasn't going to walk out, but it was going to be (a) pretty short (stay)."
Kelly, whose playoff loss to Loren Roberts at the 1996 Greater Milwaukee Open was the closest a Wisconsin golfer came to winning that long-standing PGA Tour event, found himself carrying the mantle again in this playoff after Stricker's putt on the 18th green on the first playoff hole came back at him.
"The timing has just got to be incredible for a Wisconsin guy to actually win a Wisconsin event," Kelly said. "It's just not that easy. You can't press a button and go 'OK, we're in Wisconsin, it must be (time for) the Wisconsin guys.'"
This time, though, it was. After Kelly and Goosen traded pars on the second extra hole, Kelly saw an opening when they took their playoff to the 352-yard 15th hole where he caught a break when Goosen's drive hit on the edge of the green and rolled down the hill over newer sod where a bunker once was.
"Unfortunately, I was right up against the cut there and chipping wasn't going to be easy, either," Goosen said. "I just thought if I hit a good, solid putt, it will get up. But it started bouncing on me and that was the end of that."
Moments later, Kelly made perhaps the most significant putt of his career.
"I mean, the chills were flying up and down," said Kelly, whose wife Carol was there and whose soon-to-be 84-year-old mother Lee walked almost every step of the way during the final round. "You know, my mom was saying the sun came out (on the playoff hole) and my dad was there. I haven't won since my dad passed, so this was the first one and I was talking to him all the time.
"There were a lot of birdies coming up and chirping right next to me and I was like 'Hey, hey, Dad, how are you?' It was kind of surreal."
It was a day that defied explanation on so many levels. Kelly is just glad he stuck around for it.