Jerry Kelly has spent a career chasing Steve Stricker — his good friend, fellow Madison golfer and current U.S. Ryder Cup captain — but, this time, it's a really big deal.
In fact, you might call it a major deal.
Kelly will go into the final round of his title defense at the Bridgestone Senior Players Championship four shots behind Stricker, and the fact it's that close is a testimony to how quickly Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio, can change the narrative. Stricker led the third of the PGA Tour Champions' five major championships by five shots entering the day, extended his cushion to nine at the turn and then struggled mightily starting the back nine — he played the first six holes in 5-over-par after having made just one bogey over his first 45 holes (at No. 4 after a birdie-birdie-birdie start to the third round).
"I mean, it's tough out there," Kelly told reporters in Ohio after his 2-under 68 pushed him into sole possession of second place at 3-under 207 and a lot closer to Stricker (72-203). "I know it took him a while to make that first bogey, but that's — until you've made that first bogey, you feel like you're pretty invincible. You know, I understand it. Did I go 36 holes without a bogey last year? Then it was, oh, yeah, floodgates, but you right the ship, and I'm sure he will.
"He let a lot of guys in right now, but (it's a) 72-hole tournament, so just got to go play."
That they get to play in a twosome as the final group of the day (1:10 p.m. CDT) will only sweeten the opportunity in front of both.
"Yeah, it will be fun," Stricker said. "We've played a lot of golf together, but (Sunday) we're going to be trying to win so it will be probably a little more serious than (when) we typically are out and playing. It will be fun."
Saturday was anything but fun for Stricker after his sizzling start.
With his lead threatening double-digits, the fountain of birdies went dry. His lead didn't begin to evaporate, however, until the back nine where a three-putt bogey at No. 10 led to a double-bogey on the par-3 12th hole where he his 6-iron off the tee came to rest against the back lip of a greenside bunker.
"(I) pipe a drive at 13, hits a tree and kicked more in the woods, end up making par there," Stricker said. "But just the feeling of stuff was turning and going the other way all of a sudden, you know. Drove it in the middle of the fairway at 14 and hit a terrible 6-iron in there, don't get it up(-and-down). Missed the green just barely at 15 and don't get that up and down.
"It was a tough stretch of holes in there from 12, 13, 14, 15. Yeah, I had a five-shot lead starting the day, I've got four now, so all in all I didn't give away too many. Had an opportunity to kind of really distance myself, and that was the plan (Saturday was) to get out, get going and be aggressive and make some birdies and get out ahead, but kind of got side-tracked there in the middle."
In the end, a birdie at No. 16 stopped the bleeding and kept Stricker firmly in the driver's seat for his third career PGA Tour Champions major.
Kelly insisted that chasing Stricker doesn't get the adrenaline going any more or any less than against any golfer on the senior circuit. What makes the task ahead of the defending Senior Players champion is how difficult Stricker, who is 4-for-8 in converting 36-hole leads into victories, can be to catch.
Stricker won his first two majors on the senior circuit protecting leads that he had going into the final rounds of the 2019 Regions Tradition and U.S. Senior Open (by six shots over Jerry Kelly). However, he took one-shot leads into the final round of the first two PGA Tour Champions majors this year, but lost the Regions Tradition (in a playoff to Alex Cejka) and the KitchenAid Senior PGA Championship (also to Cejka after a final-round 77, his highest score in his 32 career starts on the PGA Tour Champions).
"He's tougher to chase because he's such a good putter," said Kelly, who — coming off one successful title defense at the American Family Insurance Championship in Madison — can't wait to embrace the chance to become the first golfer since Bernhard Langer in 2017 to win back-to-back tournaments and the first since Phil Mickelson in 2020 to win in back-to-back starts. "I mean, I enjoy the chase. I'd rather be in the lead and stretch it, that's everybody's ideal, but I don't mind the chase."