AmFam 3 Jerry Kelly kissing trophy

Jerry Kelly plants a kiss on the Dream Achieved trophy after defending his title at the American Family Insurance Championship played at University Ridge in Madison.

MADISON – This is one of the great party cities in the Midwest, but what happened on the 18th green at University Ridge late Sunday afternoon rivaled the Mifflin Street Block Party, tailgating at Badgers football games and Brat Fest for a crazy-good celebratory vibe.

There was Jerry Kelly’s giddy clan – some two dozen family members and close friends – mugging for cameras. There was Kelly, riding across the green on his mother Lee’s mobility scooter. There were hugs and high-fives from the American Family Insurance Championship team, volunteers, tournament player host Steve Stricker and assorted other AmFam officials and guests.

Kelly, 54, of Madison, had just pulled off the improbable, repeating as AmFam champion, his brilliant stretch of five birdies in eight holes demonstrating the grit and resolve he brings to this tournament. He clawed his way to the top of the leader board on the back nine and withstood a late rally by Fred Couples to win for the eighth time on the PGA Tour Champions.

“He’s a fighter,” said Jim Furyk, who was paired with Kelly and had a front-row seat to some great shot-making and clutch putting.

A fighter. There’s no better way to describe Kelly, who makes up for a lack of pure talent with grit, self-belief and a take-no-prisoners hockey mentality. You want him on your side in a scrap, that’s for sure.

All he did Sunday was shoot a 6-under 66 – bettered by only four others in the final round, none of whom had a chance to win – overcome a three-shot deficit and launch a Dane County love-fest in professional golf’s return to Wisconsin following a one-year hiatus caused by the pandemic.

Kelly loves Madison. He loves the fans who turn out for the AmFam. And they love him back.

“Oh, my gosh,” said his caddie, Eric Meller. “It’s kind of like you get to feel what it’s like for some of these superstars that get it everywhere. Jerry’s a popular guy, especially on this tour. But, I mean, it’s something else here. It’s a lot of fun to play with so much support.”

Kelly finished the 54-hole tournament at 14-under 202 and earned $360,00 from the purse of $2.4 million, the biggest among non-majors on the Champions tour. He also became the first player in the 2020-’21 season to successfully defend a title and moved to the top of the Charles Schwab Cup standings for the first time this season.

“To be able to celebrate with everybody from Madison, everybody from Wisconsin … and my family, it means so much to share this stuff,” he said. “I won right after (the re-start following) COVID and it was a major and nobody was there. It was kind of like, woo-hoo. But to really get the feelings up and do it in front of people just means so much more.”

Couples and Miguel Angel Jimenez, the second-round leader, tied for second at 203 and Jim Furyk and Retief Goosen were another shot back at 204.

Couples, the 2017 AmFam champion, had a chance to force a playoff after birdies on Nos. 16 and 17 pulled him even with Kelly. But his approach on 18 flew to the back fringe, his difficult downhill-sidehill chip rolled 8 feet past the hole and he missed the par putt.

“It just came out hot and rolled through the green,” Couples said of his 9-iron from 155 yards. “I chipped it strong and pushed the putt and that was it.”

Kelly got off to a rough start with a bogey on the first hole, which followed his round-ending double-bogey on Saturday. Those were his only two over-par scores of the tournament, but they came in succession, although a day apart.

“I double-bogeyed the last hole and then I bogeyed the first hole today,” he said. “I was kind of like, wow, what just happened?”

The turning point came on the par-5 second. His third shot went over the green and he left his chip some 20 feet short.

“He was muttering a little bit,” Meller said. “I said, ‘You know what? Get it over with the first hole or two. Go make that putt. You didn’t chunk it for double-bogey. You still have a birdie putt. It’s just not 2 feet like you wanted.’ Sure enough, he made it.

“Just a bogey-birdie to start the day. Not that big a deal. Sure enough, he got fired up and got it going.”

But not immediately. Kelly made five consecutive pars before finally getting a birdie putt to drop on No. 9. Then the floodgates opened. On the par-5 11th, he had to lay up after hitting his drive into a fairway bunker but then stuffed his third shot tight for a birdie.

On the par-3 12th, he rolled in a 10-footer for birdie to tie for the lead with Couples and Jimenez. He missed a 12-footer on No. 13, but played the 14th flawlessly – great drive, wedge to 5 feet – and made the putt to get to 13-under.

After a disappointing par on the 15th, he got a huge break when his drive on the par-5 16th clipped a clump of trees separating the double fairway but somehow got through them. Even though his ball was in the rough, he was able to lay up to within wedge distance, then hit his third shot to 10 feet and made the birdie putt, his ball toppling over the front of the cup on its final rotation.

“I can’t believe it ended up where it did,” Kelly said of his tee shot. “That was an extremely lucky break. I mean, that could have hit the first tree and been back in the hay. That was definitely my (late) dad (Jack) intervening on that one. How that got through everything, I have absolutely no idea. Thanks, dad.”

On the long par-3 17th, Kelly made the safe play to the back-middle of the green and two-putted, though his par putt did a 360 before dropping.

On the uphill, par-4 18th, he made sure his tee shot avoided the left fairway bunker – the one he was in Saturday that led to the double-bogey. His 5-iron approach finished pin-high, but in three-inch grass on the upslope of a steep hill. He bellied a wedge 10 feet past the hole and made the clutch par putt – which turned out to be the winner after Couples’ bogey.

“That one easily could have gone 20 feet by,” Meller said of the delicate chip. “Then I’m sure in his mind, if he tries to get too cute, it’s possible to leave it in (the rough short of the green and face the same shot again). You knew as soon as it got to even the first cut, it’s going to the hole. I’m sure he gave it just a little bit more to make sure that didn’t happen.”

Kelly signed his scorecard and watched Couples play the final hole on TV. Then the celebration began.

“Yeah, this is as good as it gets,” said Stricker, who fired a final-round 65 and finished in a tie for seventh. “Jerry and I go way back and to have him win back-to-back, it’s pretty special. And to return golf here to Wisconsin and have a Wisconsinite win, that’s pretty special.”

After the Kelly clan departed, the spectators went home happy and shadows lengthened over U Ridge, you knew the real party was just starting.

“I think it’s going to be pretty good,” Kelly said with a grin. “Somewhere where I don’t have to drive home, I know that.”

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