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Wisconsin native Jerry Kelly has welcomed the 86th PGA Championship to his home state with open arms.
Wisconsin native Jerry Kelly has welcomed the 86th PGA Championship to his home state with open arms. (Photo: Getty Images)

Native son Kelly 'extremely pumped' about PGA

Jerry Kelly has always said nothing would make him happier than to win the Greater Milwaukee Open, which is played in his home state of Wisconsin. Nothing, that is, until you mention the 86th PGA Championship, which will be contested in the Badger State at Whistling Straits this week. “I’m going to be extremely pumped and extremely ready,” Kelly said. "I can’t wait.”
Meet Wisconsin’s Jerry Kelly
Full name: Jerome Patrick Kelly
Height: 5 feet, 11 inches
Weight: 165
Birthdate: Nov. 23, 1966
Birthplace: Madison, Wis.
Residence: Madison, Wis.
Family: Wife, Carol; Son, Cooper (6)
College: University of Hartford
Turned professional: 1989
Joined PGA Tour: 1996
PGA Tour wins: 2 (2002 Sony Open; 2002 Western Open)
PGA Championships: 7
Best Finish: T26, 1999

Jerry Kelly of Madison, Wisc., has always approached the Greater Milwaukee Open as if it was his personal Holy Grail. He wants to win the only PGA Tour event in his home state so badly that he sometimes gets in his own way.

The other four touring professionals from Wisconsin -– Steve Stricker, J.P. Hayes, Skip Kendall and Mark Wilson –- get charged up for the GMO, too. But Kelly’s passion and enthusiasm are off the charts. The fact that he has had a couple of close calls in the GMO, including a playoff loss to Loren Roberts in 1996, only makes him more determined to someday win what he calls “my fifth major.” So you can imagine how he feels about an official major, the 86th PGA Championship, being played in his home state. The PGA Championship at Whistling Straits is the first men’s major in Wisconsin in 71 years.

“I’m going to be extremely pumped and extremely ready,” says Kelly, who adds that he was the first player to reserve a room at the Kohler Co.-owned American Club, where most of the PGA contestants will stay during the week. “It’s going to be a ton of fun. I can’t wait.”

Getting up for a major, or any tournament for that matter, has never been a problem for Kelly, who grew up in Madison and still lives there. His strength as a player is his emotional make-up, the hallmarks of which are a fiery competitiveness, a burning desire to excel and a deep-rooted self-confidence that is nearly unshakeable.

Those qualities have transformed him from a golfer with a modest amateur record and a flawed swing into one of the top players in the world. Kelly won two tournaments in 2002, has earned more than $2 million in each of the last two seasons, and played on the 2003 U.S. Presidents Cup team.

Not bad for an ex-hockey player.

Kelly was an all-city center at Madison East High School and accepted a scholarship to play hockey and golf at the University of Hartford.

As a young amateur in Wisconsin, Kelly butted heads with Stricker, Hayes and Kendall and usually lost. His only title of note was the 1989 Wisconsin State Golf Association Match Play Championship.

He turned professional later that year and began a slow and steady climb, from mini-tours to the Nike (now Nationwide) Tour to the PGA Tour. He won twice on the Nike Tour in 1995 and was named Player of the Year. The next season, as a rookie on the PGA Tour, he lost to Roberts in the GMO playoff and finished 59th on the money list.

All the while, he was trying to overcome two huge obstacles: An exceedingly flat swing that reminded some of a hockey slap shot and a simmering competitive anger, marked by an “Irish temper” that sometimes derailed him mid-round.

At the 1997 PGA Championship, while Davis Love III was winning under a rainbow at Winged Foot, Kelly was coming to the realization that his swing would need a complete overhaul if he was ever going to become a consistent player. He enlisted the help of instructor Rick Smith, who tore his swing apart and started from scratch.

“Rick said, ‘Jerry, if you can play that good with that swing, you’ve got to have talent,’” Kelly said. “I said, ‘Thanks a lot.’ We made big changes, wholesale changes. I went from a timing, athletic type of swing where I had to be on (to play well) to a swing where if I don’t feel good, I can still compete.”

He also had to address how he handled his emotions on the course. He came to understand that it was okay to express anger as long as he didn’t let it affect his next shot. Many players slam an iron to the turf after a bad approach shot but few on the PGA Tour are still thinking about it on the next tee.

For Kelly, it was not a lesson learned overnight. He went through periods of trying to completely suppress his emotions, which didn’t work, and trying not to care, which worked even less.

“I’m learning to be more positive every year I’m out here. It was definitely a detriment in the past.”

Marriage and maturity helped. His wife, Carol, caddied for Kelly on occasion earlier in his career and taught him some valuable lessons. Carol has been around golf for years. Her brother, PGA Professional Jim Schuman, is the University of Wisconsin golf coach, a former Nike Tour player and a two-time winner of the PGA Assistant Professional Championship. Carol has a knack for saying the right thing at the right time.

“I don’t think I would have made it through the Nike Tour without Carol,” says Kelly.

His career has been marked by steady improvement. From 1997 to 2002, he was one of only four players to win increasingly more money in each succeeding year. In 2001 he finished in the top 10 seven times and had 11 top-25 finishes. In 2002, he improved those totals to eight and 14 and last year he improved them again, to 10 and 16.

Even before he won twice in 2002 (Sony Open in Hawaii and the Western Open), he was among the more confident players on Tour. At 37, he thinks there’s still plenty of room for improvement.

“I know Tiger (Woods) can get better,” he said. “And if he can get better, why can’t I?”

He could start by playing better in the majors. His best finishes, going into the 2004 season, were ties for 20th in the Masters, 26th in the PGA Championship, 28th in the British Open and 37th in the U.S. Open.

“The way I am in majors, I really can’t figure it out,” says Kelly. “It’s like I try to downplay the majors. But there’s no possibility of that with this PGA Championship.”

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