It’s hard to ignore Jerry Kelly on the golf course, or anywhere else, for that matter. He plays golf with a passion; an Everyman grit that’s as engaging as his laser-sharp, straight-down-the-middle drives. He cheers his target-bound balls to their destination like he’s in the stands of the Stanley Cup playoffs. But, more than anything, Jerry Kelly is a guy with staying power in a sport where so many crash and burn. A self-proclaimed underdog who continually rises to the occasion on the PGA Tour and brings us all along for the ride.
Maybe part of the intrigue comes from the fact that Kelly wasn’t groomed for pro golf at an early age. He played varsity hockey, varsity soccer and varsity golf, not because of some grand plan, but, because that’s what kids growing up in Madison, Wisconsin did.
“We have seasons up here, so we don’t specialize in one sport as much. When golf season was done, I dropped the sticks and picked up a hockey stick. When hockey season ended, I had a soccer ball on my foot,” Kelly explained. “Growing up like that is good and bad. It’s bad because you don’t progress as fast in any individual sport as kids who specialize. But, it’s good because you can get away from that sport for a while and give your brain a rest. I actually think the ability to focus your brain on something else is more important to long-term success than excelling at a younger age.”
According to Kelly, those “specializers” are also more likely to overuse certain muscles.
“If you’re a right-handed golfer, and that’s the only sport you play, you’d better learn to swing left-handed some of the time. It’s those decelerating muscles that make all the difference—that’s what makes you hit the ball hard,” Kelly said.
He learned a lot about the importance of training both sides of his body early on.
“I broke my right ankle my freshman year in high school and it taught me an awful lot about compensating on both sides,” Kelly said. “It’s funny how, sometimes, those injuries and things that seem so tragic when they happen are the very things that set new pathways and open new doors. They’re the things that make you stronger and better at what you do, in the long run.
In Golf as in Life: Attitude is Everything
Kelly, whose family was in the insurance industry, attended the University of Hartford. He could play golf and hockey there, and he’d get a good education that would serve him well, whether he went pro or not. Although being a realist, Kelly knew that very few aspiring players actually make it to the pro tour, every time he heard, “You can’t,” his response was, “Just watch me.”
“When someone said I wasn’t going to make it, that actually put a chip on my shoulder—it became motivation to prove them wrong,” Kelly said. “Honestly, I think it’s less detrimental to have someone beating you down than perching you up because, inevitably, you’re going to lose 99 percent of the time in golf. If someone’s putting you down, you learn how to lift yourself up. Even incremental changes in your game become positives, because it’s not like anyone expects you to win.
“But, if somebody’s building you up constantly and saying, ‘You’re the best, you’re the best, you’re the best,” all of a sudden you get into a position where you’re not winning and you discover that you’re not as great as you’ve been made out to be. You were an All-American in college, but all of the sudden, you’re at the bottom of the totem pole at the pro level, and you don’t know how to deal with that mentally.”
Kelly had a very different trajectory. He started at the bottom and slowly, but surely, worked his way up.
“I wasn’t even let into the very basic amateur tournaments in the Midwest because I didn’t win any amateur tournaments. When the organizers didn’t invite me to play, I used that as motivation, as well,” Kelly said.
He missed Q-School six straight times. The last three of those six years, he missed by just one stroke.
“Tell me what that would have done to most guys. They would have given up on golf,” Kelly said. “Me, I said, ‘Screw this, I’m never going back to Q-School.’ The next year, I took number one on the Nike Tour and I’ve never been back. I guess that makes me the most successful 0-for-six, non-graduate of Q-School ever.”
Those are the moments that shaped Jerry Kelly. Don’t think for a second that they didn’t hurt at the time.
“When I watched that last guy come in and knock my number out, did I want to well up? Yes. Did I get mad? Yes. Did I quit golf? No. Big difference,” Kelly said. “Any time something happens to beat you down, you have two choices. You can stay down, or you can use it as motivation to win the next time. You can use it as motivation to keep on fighting. You do that, you win.”
Family. The Future. And Having More Fun in 2017.
At the time of this writing, Jerry Kelly with partner Steve Stricker topped the leaderboard at the Franklin Templeton Shootout, finishing second by just one stroke to Matt Kuchar and Harris English. But, it wasn’t the clutch putts or the 16-under 56 on the day one scramble that Kelly remembers.
“Playing with Kuchar is so darn much fun. He’s the smiling assassin—he’s an animal. But, he enjoys talking and he enjoys it when everyone’s playing well and hitting great shots,” Kelly said. “Don’t get me wrong—he likes it better when he comes out on top. But, I told him afterwards, ‘Kuch, there’s a reason we both play great when we play together. It’s because it’s such a game with us.’”
Which brings me to yet another reason that Jerry Kelly has staying power. The man simply never stops learning.
“That experience, playing with Kuch, that taught me something. Honestly, I’m usually not that much fun on the golf course unless I’m playing well. I’d like that to change,” Kelly said. “I learned something at the Franklin Templeton that I’ll take with me in the weeks forward—and we lost. You have to take something every single week and bring it forward, even when you lose. That’s what makes you a better player. Even the greatest players say, ‘You don’t learn a lot from winning.’”
But, in the end, Jerry Kelly’s staying power has less to do with who he is as a golfer and more to do with his priorities as a human being.
“Golf is what I do, but my family is what’s important to me. When I’m home, we don’t talk about my job. We talk about our son Cooper’s sports. He’s a great baseball player trying to get into a great college. We talk about my wife’s job flipping houses,” Kelly said. “It’s such a fun family. We have such a great time together. There’s no time for wallowing in defeat or expecting admiration if I win a tournament—there’s no way I’m getting big-headed in that household and I love that. We just live and love and support each other. We’re all working toward each other’s goals. I don’t know what to tell you other than I’ve got a great family, and that’s really the only important thing, in my life, anyway.”
No matter what the new season or his first year on the Champions Tour brings in 2017, it looks to me like Jerry Kelly has already won.