Defending Bridgestone champion Jerry Kelly riding high after wobbly driver woes rectified

AKRON, Ohio — Jerry Kelly returns to Firestone Country Club this week riding an ultimate high, now that he is no longer cranking the club head of his unstable driver.

On June 13, Kelly defended his title in the American Family Insurance Championship in his hometown of Madison, Wisconsin. He captured his first victory on the PGA Tour Champions since he claimed his first major, the Bridgestone Senior Players Championship, in Akron last August.

“That was much needed for my psyche,” Kelly said of his one-shot triumph over Fred Couples and Miguel Angel Jimenez at University Ridge Golf Club. “That’s what that major can do for you confidence-wise. It was huge for me to win the Players, but last week was just incredible and I’m not quite two feet on the ground yet.”

Kelly will need to return to earth if he hopes to prevail for the second consecutive year in the $3 million Bridgestone Senior Players that opens Thursday at Firestone’s famed South Course. The last man to take home consecutive Senior Players trophies was Bernhard Langer from 2014-16. The last to post back-to-back victories at Firestone was Tiger Woods from 2005-07 in the World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational.

“When we get to a world-class golf course — no two ways about it, this is completely world-class, it’s major quality — and we all know it and we all want to win at courses like that because it just proves the game can hold up under any circumstance,” Kelly said Wednesday. “Having won at Firestone Country Club … I know I can win just about anywhere now because it’s that great of a golf course.”

He got a lift from the American Family triumph in more than one regard. It followed what he called his worst round in 2021, a 75 on the final day of the Principal Charity Classic in Des Moines, Iowa, where he finished tied for 23rd.

Kelly said he broke his driver about six weeks ago and had been struggling since. Going into the American Family, in his previous four tournaments dating back to May 9 he had tied for 19th, tied for 14th, tied for 12th and tied for 52nd in the field in driving accuracy, normally his strong suit.

He remained third in the Champions Tour driving accuracy standings for the 2020-21 wraparound season, but in Des Moines hit only 42.86 percent of the fairways, well below his season average of 79.20 percent.

Kelly has an endorsement deal with Srixon but was playing with a PING driver, and said his game wasn’t the same after it was broken.

“The internal threading stripped,” he said. “I hit a shot once and my head looked [bent] and I’m like, ‘That’s not good.’ Basically, I cranked it back down; I could hold onto the grip and twist the head.”

Kelly said he thought it was a problem with the ferrule, the covering between the shaft and club head, so he replaced that. He tried a different driver, but couldn’t find the right shaft-club head combination, so he went back to the broken one.

“I played with it for a few weeks that way,” he said. “It was stable for solid hits, but it was not stable for mishits. I think it moved enough on mishits that I was not hitting shots that I’m used to seeing.

“Even though it probably was the ferrule, just me cranking that thing to show everybody what was going on I think I stripped the head as well.”

He was finally sent a new head and shaft before the Wisconsin tournament, and he said the driver “worked out perfectly.”

Kelly said it’s the kind of problem all pros encounter. He joked that what he did wasn’t nearly as bad as what happened to Rod Pampling in Des Moines. Pampling ducked under a spectator rope and dropped the rope across his bag on the back of his cart. When the cart pulled away, two of his clubs fell out and snapped.

“It’s good comedy if you haven’t seen that one,” Kelly said.

Hitting fairways with his rebuilt driver will be key for Kelly at Firestone, where he and runner-up Scott Parel were the only two in the field to finish under par in 2020.

“You can’t just hit straight drives, you have to actually shape it in the fairways,” Kelly said. “The way that they’re sloped, even when a fairway is wide, you probably only have half to a quarter of that fairway to actually hit. If I’m confident with my driver, I really enjoy the way I’m hitting my irons, the way I’m putting and my short game. So that course especially comes down to the driver.

“If it plays firm and fast. Even though you’re hitting it farther, you need more control over your ball off the tee. I really love that about that golf course because that’s my strong point.”

Kelly explained why his victory in Madison was so important, especially coming off that round of 75 in Des Moines.

“I knew I hadn’t won this year,” he said. “It was great to actually outplay the guys on the backside on Sunday. I knew I was close. But after making double bogey on Saturday to finish my round and then starting my round with a bogey the next day, to come back from those on two separate days, you had the same feeling both times.

“I had to dig deep. That’s probably what I’m most proud of, the comeback that I posed from those two spots. I was in the lead and faltered. And when you come back from something like that, that just makes you that much more proud rather than having everything go so smoothly, which obviously never happens.”

Kelly, 54, also had his mother, Lee, in the gallery. She said in an interview with the Champions Tour staff that she has been keeping his scorecard since he was 5 and making scrapbooks with clippings of his accomplishments.

But her most unusual quirk is burying feathers at the course he’s playing for luck.

“If you bury a feather, you grow a birdie,” Kelly explained in the video.

“She’s been doing it forever,” he said Wednesday. “I played at my regular golf course yesterday, I had a charity outing, and I’m walking down the fairway and I’m like, ‘Wow, there’s an eagle feather, she’d really like that one.’ And I eagled the next hole. It’s crazy, it really is.”

Eagles can be rare at Firestone, but Kelly got one with a hole-in-one at the par-3 No. 12 in the final round last year. Coming into 2020, Kelly had played in four NEC-Bridgestone Invitationals from 2003-09. His best finish in that span was a tie for 11th in 2009, when his 277 total was nine shots behind winner Woods. Last year Kelly also posted a 277 and beat Parel by two strokes.

As he looked forward to competing again in Akron, where he likes to relax at the restaurants beside the water at Portage Lakes, Kelly set another goal besides winning.

“I am going to hit the fairway on the eighth hole this year,” he said, shaking his head affirmatively. “I am, I know I am. Every time I step up on that tee, I say, ‘This is the day that I finally hit you, fairway.’”

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