Monday, January 18, 2021

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Insider: Island vibes lead to success for Kelly

No man is an island, but you put Jerry Kelly on one and he’s pretty comfortable.

Kelly, 54, will tee it up starting Thursday at the PGA TOUR’s Sony Open in Honolulu before making his way to Kaupulehu-Kona for next week’s season opener on PGA TOUR Champions, the Mitsubishi Electric Championship at Hualalai.

What do these events have in common besides the island of Hawaii? Each has been won by Kelly. His first of three PGA TOUR victories came at the 2002 Sony, and the third of his seven PGA TOUR Champions victories came at Hualalai in 2018.

That’s 20% of his biggest wins as a pro, and he says it’s no coincidence. In fact, he almost sounds like Jeff Spicoli when he says it.

“I’m a water guy and it’s an island, man,” Kelly said this week. “I’ve just always loved it there. It’s so friendly and there’s just a good vibe. It’s ohana (a Hawaiian term meaning family), man. I can’t wait to see all my friends there even though they can’t come out and watch me play.”

Ah, yes, reminders of the coronavirus pandemic are everywhere for the members of PGA TOUR Champions. To a man they miss the fans.

Kelly said it has been weird to play without them.

“I love playing in front of our fans,” Kelly said. “You feed off that energy. Ever since we returned from the pandemic it’s way too quiet. You have to create your own energy. Sometimes that’s easy to do, but it’s difficult at other times. You know I’m a guy who will pump his fist and react, but now you don’t have anyone there to boost that.”

Kelly admits to starting slowly in 2020. His best finish in five events before the pandemic shutdown was a T22 at Hualalai. But he came back blazing after the long layoff. Kelly posted four top 10s in the year’s final 10 events, including winning his first Champions Tour major, the Bridgestone SENIOR PLAYERS Championship. The big payday, $450,000, pushed him from well back in the standings to a spot in the top 10 on the Schwab Cup rankings.

“That win certainly helped,” Kelly said. “I wasn’t 100% when the year started, but played well for that stretch after we came back. Got some confidence going.”

One of his top 10s came at the Sanford International in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. It was the only event in which fans were allowed to attend and they came out in droves, somewhere in the neighborhood of 60,000 for the week.

Kelly posted 66-68-66 to finish tied for sixth. It was his second consecutive top 10 at the event.

“It was great to have everybody out and they really came out to support us,” Kelly said. “But at the same time it was strange because we had been playing in front of no one. And they wanted to get close and high five, which normally is fine, but the way things have been you had to keep your distance.”

Kelly says he’s ready and rejuvenated for 2021 and the rest of this 40-event, wraparound super season. He said he and his wife, Carol, got a place in Arizona and wintered there for the first time in his career. He was able to work out and play plenty of golf and is feeling as well as he has since turning 50.

Kelly also is taking advantage of his status on the top 50 in the career money list on the PGA TOUR, which will end this year, to play in a handful of PGA TOUR events.

“It’s the last year I can use my top 50 status, but I will not miss any events on the Champions Tour,” Kelly said. “I’m just not going to do that. But I’ll play a few here and there, and I’m certainly looking forward to The PLAYERS Championship in March (his victory at the Bridgestone SENIOR PLAYERS earned him the invite).”

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