Jerry Kelly couldn’t wait to celebrate.
As his birdie putt slowly tracked toward the hole on the third hole of a sudden death playoff in the American Family Insurance Championship at University Ridge Golf course, Kelly turned, let out a guttural scream and jumped into the arms of his caddie Eric Meller.
Fortunately for Kelly, the putt actually went in to give the Madison resident a much-anticipated and greatly treasured victory on his home turf.
“It really is truly awesome,” said Kelly, who came close a couple times to winning the Greater Milwaukee Open on the regular tour, finishing second twice, once in a playoff, and finished second by one shot in the AmFam last year. “Those GMO days, that first playoff was tough and never getting it done, so this was really big for me. It’s about friends and family, and to be able to do it in front of everybody — closest I ever came was Chicago — but this is pretty sweet.”
It took a series of improbable twists and turns that saw first Kelly, then Retief Goosen and then fellow Madisonian Steve Stricker miss potential winning putts on their 72nd hole to force a three-man playoff.
A three-putt bogey by Stricker knocked him out in the first playoff hole. Kelly and Goosen each parred 18 twice, pushing the playoff to No. 15 for its third hole.
Kelly drove the ball about 45 yards short of the green in the middle of the fairway, while Goosen, who had lost a ball on his tee shot earlier in the day at 15, nearly drove the green, only to have the ball roll down into a collection area for an awkward second shot.
Kelly pitched to inside 10 feet, while Goosen tried to putt his ball up a side hill only to see it come to rest on the fringe. He missed a long putt, leaving Kelly with a chance to win by making his putt.
“It was one of the best putts I ever hit,” Kelly said. “I really enjoyed it. That was almost a cup out and it was downhill at the end, so it had to be great speed and a great line. I was happy with it.”
Even if he never did actually see it go in.
“It looked like it was going well inside the edge and going in,” Kelly said. “And I turned and yelled and then (Meller) hugged me really hard so I figured it must have gone in.
“But I mean, I guarantee you I’m going to have dreams that that didn’t go in and I went and celebrated and they’re like, ‘You’re going to have to come back and make this next one.’”
Kelly, the first-round leader, entered the final round tied for fifth place, two shots behind Steve Flesch, who dropped back after opening the day with two bogeys.
Kelly, playing in the third-to-last group, pushed himself into a four-way battle most of the day with Goosen and Duffy Waldorf, one group behind him, and Stricker, playing in the final group.
After going 4-under on the front nine, Kelly put together birdies on Nos. 13, 14 and 16 to take a one-shot lead to the 18th hole at 16 under.
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He received a hero’s welcome as he made his way to the green, where his second shot left him about 60 feet from the pin. His first putt uphill came up about 10 feet short and he missed from there to slip back into a tie with Goosen and Waldorf, who had just birdied No. 17.
Goosen then appeared to have put himself into position for his first PGA Tour Champions victory when he hit his second shot at 18 to within about 3 feet. But his putt broke at the last second and lipped out, knocking him back into a tie with Kelly, who had already made his way to the interview room before he headed across town to home.
“I hit a good putt, misread it,” Goosen said. “Mine looked like just really pretty much a dead straight uphill putt and hit it firm, too. It broke.”
That opened the door for Stricker, who after a disappointing par on No. 16, birdied the 17th and then put his second shot on No. 18 about 8 feet from the pin, coming in from the opposite side that Goosen had missed his putt.
Just like Goosen’s, Stricker’s putt broke toward the front of the green and he had to tap in to join the three-man playoff. It would’ve been a four-way competition had Waldorf not three-putted for his first bogey of the week on 18.
“Misread it a little bit,” Stricker said of his fateful putt on 18. “I didn’t think it was going to break as much as it did and it just snapped off at the end. I thought I hit a pretty good putt.
“I couldn’t ask for a better situation. I hit a great shot in there and had nothing to lose at that point. It’s mine to win. You want to capitalize on those.
“When you have that opportunity in your hands to end it, you want to. That’s what you work all day for, all tournament for, just to put yourself in that position to see if you can do it and I wasn’t able to do it.”
A short time later Stricker would miss again on a par putt from about 10 feet on the other side to knock him out of the playoff.
If Stricker was disappointed at those two misses, Kelly was shocked.
“He’s the best putter I’ve ever known, best putter I’ve ever seen,” Kelly said.
While he joked about Stricker being a good host in missing those putts, Kelly left no doubt the victory was a special one for him. The victory is his fourth in 33 PGA Tour Champions starts and his first since the passing of his father, Jack, in 2018.
“The chills were flying up and down,” Kelly said. “It was pretty amazing. You know, my mom saying the sun came out, 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 birds coming up and chirping right next to me and I was like, ‘Hey, hey Dad, how are you?’ It was kind of surreal.”
On a career basis, Kelly ranks this victory right along with his first on the PGA Tour at the 2002 Sony Open in Hawaii.
“To battle Strick down the stretch and to have a playoff and to be in Madison, I mean, they’re neck and neck,” Kelly said. “I probably wouldn’t be here without the Sony win, but there’s no words for this one. It’s right there, if not better.”