Kelly, Choi look to shake off Masters hangover in New Orleans

Jerry Kelly has only missed one cut this season.
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NEW ORLEANS -- After finishing T12 at Augusta, Jerry Kelly tried to play the Verizon Heritage at Hilton Head last week but faded on the weekend.

The same was true of K.J. Choi (T4 at Augusta), who led the Verizon after an opening-round 64 but blew up with a second-round 74.

"We both walked off the course on Friday — he said, 'I tired. I tired,'" Kelly said at the Zurich Classic of New Orleans, where he is defending champion this week. "I said, 'I'm right there with you, buddy.'"

In New Orleans, a city that knows something about hangovers, Tour players who were in the Masters mix are just now getting back to normal. Some took last week off; others wished they did.

The rest of the field is made up of the rank-and-file-guys who finished between 125 and 150 on last year's money list (Stuart Appleby, Todd Hamilton), or who got in this week on sponsor exemptions (John Daly, Carlos Franco, Rocco Mediate, Chris Smith). All aim to revive their careers the way Kelly did, when he broke a nearly seven-year winless streak in '09.

This week, which marks the exact middle of the 2010 PGA Tour schedule, is also about replenishing for the rest of the season. Good food helps with that. During the 2009 Zurich pro-am, Kelly put on a clinic at one of the food kiosks on the 10th tee, setting what is almost certainly the Tour record for charbroiled oysters eaten in one sitting: 52.

"That's pushing my limit," he said with a laugh.

Friday will mark the midway point of the season: 18 ½ of the Tour's 37 tournaments will be in the books. Positioned halfway between the Masters and the Players Championship, the Zurich is shaping up to be a low-key affair, more about good music (Jazz Fest) and good food than golf myth-making.

Steve Stricker, No. 3 in the world and the highest-ranked player in the field, withdrew on Wednesday. Ian Poulter, next in the rankings at No. 6, also withdrew due to a sore left knee after starting the pro-am Wednesday. Marco Dawson was next in line to replace him but opted out, so Poulter will be replaced by fifth-alternate Mark Hensby.

The enigmatic Sergio Garcia is now the highest-ranked player in the Zurich field at No. 23 in the world.

Others to watch this week include Charles Howell III, who bogeyed 15 and 17 to lose a two-shot, back-nine lead at last year's Zurich Classic, and Louisiana's David Toms, T5 here last year.

It's worth noting that Kelly, 43, is a stubborn title defender. After winning the 2002 Sony Open and Advil Western Open, he returned the next year to finish T4 and T3 in those events, respectively.

"I'm big on the overall feeling of a tournament," said Kelly, who asserts that he is improving with age. "I've got to like the golf course. I've got to like the restaurants. I've got to like my hotel. That sets everything up for my golf to be very steady."

Choi, who led the Verizon at Hilton Head after the first round but, exhausted, fell all the way to a tie for 41st place, has chosen to play New Orleans in lieu of the European Tour's Ballantine's Championship in his native Korea.

He said Wednesday that in addition to losing focus, he suffered from allergies at Hilton Head but was feeling better in New Orleans. This, after all, is where Choi authored his first Tour victory in 2002, albeit on a different course (English Turn).

"This [TPC Louisiana] course, the wind is going to be a factor," Choi said through a translator. "Your irons are going to have to be precise, because the greens and the target's going to be very small.

"I think my irons are good so far and the greens have Bermuda [grass]," Choi continued. "I feel comfortable with Bermuda greens because I've won most of my PGA tournaments on Bermuda, so I feel good about this course. The layout fits my eye."

The Ballantine's will have a better field than the Zurich, with four top-20 players (Els, Anthony Kim, Henrik Stenson, Y.E. Yang) compared to one in New Orleans. So continues a trend (Euro Tour dominance) that came to define the West Coast swing.

Yang grew up on Jeju Island and is coming off a T8 at Augusta and his third European Tour victory last weekend. Els was T4 at the '09 Ballantine's. Kim, still putting off surgery on a torn ligament in his left thumb, gave part of his pre-tournament interview in Korean this week, despite being more Californian.

"As a child my mother and father taught me a lot of Korean," he said, charming the local journos. "Living in the States has made it difficult for me to keep up my Korean, so I plan to hire a teacher and learn Korean again and so when I have another interview in the future I will try to do it in Korean."

Couples, Watson in action at Legends
The biggest shocker this year, other than Jerry Kelly's super-human intake of appetizers, and Tiger's super-human appetite for cocktail waitresses, and Lorena Ochoa's retirement, is ...

"I'd say it's that Fred Couples is playing the best golf of his career at 50," said Tom Pernice, Jr., who is playing in New Orleans this week. "And that Tom Watson is playing some of his best golf at 60."

Both will play this week's Liberty Mutual Legends of Golf at Savannah Harbor Golf Resort in Savannah, Ga. Couples and Jay Haas will be among the top teams looking to unseat defending champions Bernhard Langer and Tom Lehman.

Watson will play with his usual partner, two-time U.S. Open champ and ESPN golf analyst Andy North.

On the Nationwide Tour ...
Jamie Lovemark will be among the favorites at the South Georgia Classic Presented by First State Bank and Trust, at 7,781-yard Kinderlou Forest Golf Club in Valdosta, Ga.

 

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