U.S. SENIOR OPEN
Jerry Kelly, in Transition But Liking What He Sees at Salem June 27, 2017 | PEABODY, MASS. By Dave Shedloski

Jerry Kelly, who turned 50 last November and is teeing it up in his first U.S. Senior Open, enjoys courses that demand precision. (USGA/Jeff Haynes)

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Jerry Kelly hasn’t been as successful or as celebrated as fellow Wisconsin native Steve Stricker, and they have often been referred to as golf’s odd couple as they teamed together successfully in team events. But one thing they have in common is an ability to score, which has allowed them to remain competitive right up to their 50th birthdays.

That in itself is quite an accomplishment in professional golf.

But while Stricker remains committed to competing mostly on the PGA Tour, Kelly hit the half-century mark and turned his attention to senior golf. And he hasn’t looked back. He makes his U.S. Senior Open debut this week at Salem Country Club, and it’s accurate to describe the gritty former hockey player as a man in transition. As he prepares for a tough shot-making examination, his game is also in transition, as he makes swing changes that will allow him the kind of longevity he enjoyed on the regular tour.

“I feel like I’m dealing with a lot of unknowns right now,” said the three-time PGA Tour winner, who turned 50 in November. “There’s a lot of stuff in my head that doesn’t need to be.”

That’s news in itself. Kelly always has been a known quantity. He wasn’t the flashiest ball striker in the game or a big hitter, but he knew his strengths and played to them, relying on strategy, his wedge game and putting. Unlike most players who reach their mid-40s and then cool their heels until eligible for the PGA Tour Champions when they turn 50, Kelly kept on playing and maintained his exempt status amid the invasion of the long-hitting younger set.

That shows his resolve. But after 614 career events on the PGA Tour, he knew he’d had enough, too.

“I didn’t have a break. I played all the way up [to 50], which was great, but it’s also taxing. It’s a lot of golf,” he said. “I love senior golf. I could be competitive still on the regular tour, but I’d have to work so hard at it, and my body just doesn’t want to do that anymore. I let my guard down now and enjoy the golf out here. I’m not as intense with it.”

Kelly made his senior debut in February at the Chubb Classic and tied for third. He was off and running, it seemed, and he has posted three other top-10 finishes since, including tying for eighth with Stricker in the Bass Pro Legends team event. He also finished T-8 at the Senior PGA Championship. Not bad, but not very satisfying, either.

He is trying to cut himself some slack, but the competitor inside him is stewing. Kelly is in the midst of changes to his swing and his body, eliminating the “reverse-C” swing that he utilized throughout his career and employing a more centered and upright motion.

One of the most difficult things about such an undertaking is that new faults develop. In essence, Kelly is starting from ground zero. A few times he feared whiffing a shot.

“I was topping 9-irons. It was bad for a while,” he said with a grin. “It’s a change I had to make. I can’t do what I did before. I have to stay in posture. It’s a different move, and as a result, if something doesn’t work, I need to make new changes, and I haven’t got it all figured out yet. My mistakes are new, so my fixes have to be new. I’m feeling more comfortable, but there’s still some more exploring to do.”

What he doesn’t want to do is go exploring Salem Country Club. The old-style course punishes wayward drives and mishits. “I’m not on autopilot,” Kelly admitted. “I have to be extra careful.”

Though he is not in peak form, Salem still presents an opportunity. His best finish in a U.S. Open came a decade ago when he tied for seventh at Oakmont Country Club, near Pittsburgh, one of the toughest tests there is in the game. Kelly relished the challenge.

“Ten years at Oakmont … hard to believe,” he said wistfully. “I love courses like that, because you have to be precise on distance control and let the ball do its thing. And that’s what you have to do here.

“It’s a second-shot golf course all the way, the kind I have always enjoyed,” he added of Salem. “These greens are classic Donald Ross. Keep it below the hole and avoid the three-putts. Plenty of room off the tee, but be smart and you better get it right and control the irons.”

Can he get it right this week? Form comes and goes for even the best players. Kelly believes that four solid rounds are in him.

“My expectations are to win this golf tournament, and I’m capable if I put things relatively in order,” Kelly said. “I don’t have to be perfect. I know what to do. I just have to find that consistency you need to have in a major championship. I’d love for that to happen here.”

Without a doubt, a victory in the most prestigious championship in senior golf would certainly ease Kelly’s transition.

Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based freelance writer and a frequent contributor to USGA websites.

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