I was somewhere some time ago — the details are unimportant — when I heard somebody call my name. “John! Hey, John!”
I wheeled around and looked across four lanes of rush hour traffic, searching for the caller — and there, on the opposite corner was Jerry Kelly, grinning and waving. He looked pretty much the way he looked this afternoon, standing in ankle-deep rough on the 18th hole at Merion, just before his closing double-bogey knocked him out of second place in the first round of the U.S. Open. Even when he’s in trouble, Jerry tends to grin and gesticulate.
And now that I think of it, it was New Orleans where he shouted at me, and he was standing with his wife Carol and son Cooper outside Mother’s, famous for its baked ham and bayou recipes, but the details are unimportant. I only remember it because there aren’t too many PGA Tour players who even nod to a golf writer, much less bawl his name across a busy thoroughfare. But I had written an SI Golf+ profile on Jerry a few years before, based upon a three-day visit to his home in Madison, Wis., and that made me almost a relative.
Anyway, I crossed the street and we talked about this and that, the details are unimportant, except that it’s happened a couple more times since then, Jerry calling out my name from someplace and me wheeling around. So now, when his name pops up on the leaderboard of a major, as it does from time to time, my own face breaks out in a smile. And now I remember one of the things we talked about that evening on the sidewalk in New Orleans — how I beat Jerry and Cooper at miniature golf at the Urban Links Golf Dome, where Jerry practiced when snow covered Madison. And how Carol beat all three of us, although that’s an unnecessary detail.
The point is — and most of my media colleagues will back me up on this — Jerry is one of golf’s good guys and a player we secretly root for. He’s also one of our go-to guys, a fellow we can turn to for a good quip or some honest analysis. Today, for example, after he’d signed for an opening round of 70, Jerry provided this quip in response to a question about what three-and-a-half hours of rain delay does to you. (“It gives you the ability to watch Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Master. It’s a pretty darn good movie. You should rent it.”) We also got Jerry, the analyst, explaining why a rain-soaked and supposedly defenseless Merion was playing so tough:
“You saw where they put the pins, didn't you? Every single one of them was in the back. You can't get to them on soft greens. You can hit pitching wedges and irons from 80 yards, but … it spins back. So it was a little deceiving thinking, oh, we had easy pins in the back there. No, those are very hard when the course is playing a little shorter.” He added, “If we could play the contours of this golf course firm and fast, boy, bring lunch. It could be tough.”
It was vintage Kelly, but the lines on his forehead testify that Jerry is no longer of recent vintage. He is 46, hasn’t won a PGA Tour event since 2009, is playing this season on a career-money-list exemption, and gained his Merion berth through regional qualifying. Those are important details, but he’s still the same old Jerry, living near the North Pole, playing golf with the combative glee of the hockey player he used to be, and winning friends with his Midwestern affability.
The week I visited him in Madison he took me someplace for breakfast — the details are unimportant — to explain why he had recently moved back from Florida. It was for the obvious reason that Florida has fire ants and snakes and gets very hot, but really it was more about his feelings for Wisconsin. “Madison is not a small town,” he told me, “but it feels small in that everybody knows each other or is connected in some way.” It was the sort of place where people shouted their greetings from one sidewalk to another.
So hello, look who’s in contention at the U.S. Open … good ol’ Jerry Kelly!
I hope he wins.