PHOENIX — Jerry Kelly stood on the ninth green Thursday, watched yet another birdie putt slide past the cup and realized being even-par heading to the back nine at Phoenix Country Club on Day 1 of the Charles Schwab Cup Championship wasn't the dagger that it is most weeks on the PGA Tour Champions.
There aren't many Thursdays on the senior circuit and the Madison golfer couldn't have been happier this week's season finale was one of them.
It meant Kelly had one extra day to work his way back up the leaderboard, but he didn't wait that long. He birdied No. 10 and played his final nine holes in 3-under-par en route to a 68 that left him in a tie for 12th place, five shots behind co-leaders Paul Goydos and Tim Petrovic, his college teammate at the University of Hartford, with 54 holes left for Kelly to continue his climb.
"I was like 'Oh yeah; four days!'" Kelly said of the 72-hole format for the final leg of the Charles Schwab Cup Playoffs. "Usually, even-par after nine holes and you're behind quite a bit and you're going to have to have a really good back nine. But I just kept plugging away; I didn't have to fight too hard through everything. A couple of (birdies) came."
Kelly, who came into the final event on the 2018 schedule at No. 4 in the Charles Schwab Cup standings, will need more where those came from if he intends to compete for the overall championship.
With points doubles for this week's finale, Kelly needs to post his second victory of the season and hope points-leader Bernhard Langer finishes worse than a two-way tie for third place. Langer was tied for 21st after an even-par 71 in the opening round, but none of the golfers capable of displacing him played well enough Thursday to project a change at the top.
Despite his back-nine rally, Kelly was projected to drop to No. 7 in the Schwab Cup standings. Petrovic, who is No. 12, projects to replace him at No. 4 based on the order of the 36-player field after 18 holes.
"Unfortunately, I think I'm too far away to win the cup," said Petrovic, who chipped in for eagle on the par-4 fifth hole and bounced back from his lone bogey at No. 17 with a birdie at No. 18 to remain even with Goydos. "But we were playing a practice round and I looked over and saw the Schwab Cup sitting there and there was another trophy sitting there. I said, 'I can't get the one on the left, but I think I can get the one on the right.' So we're going to shoot for that this week, see what happens."
Kelly, meanwhile, is always in it to win it. But the 2017 PGA Tour Champions rookie of the year has been battling knee and elbow pain since sustaining torn meniscus in his right knee lifting weights in September and he clearly had to work through the discomfort early in his round Thursday.
He will have surgery on his knee next week. He needed his personal trainer Harry Sese to tape up his right elbow after teeing off on the third hole to help him deal with the nagging pain.
"We know I'm having surgery in six days on my knee, but I have to get an MRI on my elbow," Kelly said, joking: "Worst-case scenario, I have Tommy John surgery and hit it 350 yards when I come back. That'd be OK, but I don't want to take six months off. (Sese) seems to think it's acase of tendonitis from overuse, but it sure feels weird. I've had tendonitis before and ... I don't know. An MRI will tell me."
Of course, Kelly — two weeks shy of his 52nd birthday — isn't the only one hobbling around Phoenix CC counting down the holes to the postseason.
"There are a bunch of guys having surgery right after the season; I'm far from the only one," said Kelly, who wonders where he'd be in the Schwab Cup scrambled had he been 100 percent the final seven event of the season, when he had just one of his 11 top-10 finishes. "I have to take away before the injuries I was in that No. 1 spot (for a Tour-best nine weeks) and I can get back there. Shoot, I can get back there this week. But I just want to get healthy and be able to free-swing it and play better than I normally do."