NEW ORLEANS, La. — Jerry Kelly walked into the press center wearing several sets of brightly colored Mardi Gras beads and carrying an entire tray of char-grilled oysters.
He looked less like the Zurich Classic champion than the new King of New Orleans. In the afterglow of his first win in seven years, Kelly was a little bit of both. Earlier in the week, he said he loved this tournament because of the friendly atmosphere and the amazing cuisine available in this city. “This is gastronomic heaven,” he said.
And no, those oysters didn’t go to waste. He gulped one down whenever there was a break in the questioning. And there was no sharing. “I don’t think I love any food any more than these oysters right here,” he said. They came from Drago’s, a legendary local restaurant. If he ever won the Masters, he said, he would kick off the Champions Dinner with Drago’s charbroiled oysters. “Then I’d go with some Wisconsin stuff after that,” he added.
Kelly is 42, and like his fellow Madison resident and pal, Steve Stricker, he’s starting to enjoy a late-career resurgence. The last few seasons have been a bit of a struggle, but three years of work on his swing are finally beginning the pay off. Kelly led the tournament in greens hit in regulation through the first three rounds, which is not normally his forte. This victory, besides being sweet, is important because it means more good things may be ahead.
The work he has put in with Jim Schuman, his brother-in-law, is the key. Schuman is a Madison pro who also coaches the University of Wisconsin golf team.
“I’ve been wanting to win so I could get some recognition for Jim,” Kelly said. “He’s worked his butt off. He’s done so much for other people in golf and he’s so selfless. I became a volunteer assistant coach to help him out. He has done everything to change my game. I don’t know if you can see it, but I can sure feel it. I had a bad move and great timing. If he can do to my swing what I’m feeling, it’s time he gets recognized as one of the best teachers in the game.”
Kelly has always been a wizard around the greens, saving pars by getting up and down. It’s been his long game that has been spotty. Now, after three years of hard time with Schuman, he feels like his swing may be better than it’s ever been. Finally, Kelly may really have it instead of going from one quick swing fix to another.
Stricker came out to watch the final hole Sunday after he’d finished his round. He shot 67, which lifted him to a tie for seventh. Dressed in jeans and sneakers, he blended in with the scenery at the back of the 18th green. “Where’s Jerry?” he asked. Told he had safely laid up to wedge range, Stricker was relieved.
“He’ll hit this one to 15 feet just below the hole,” Stricker predicted. That’s exactly what Kelly did. Stricker was still a little fidgety. “I’m nervous for him,” he admitted.
Two putts later, Kelly pumped his fists in exultation, or maybe relief, and smiled wide. They embraced in the tunnel beneath the grandstands as they walked to the scoring area. They’re good friends, their kids are about the same age and they live only 10 minutes apart. They hang out together when they’re on the road.
“Steve has been such a great friend to me,” Kelly said. “I hope he can say I’ve been a great friend to him through the years as well. To have someone special like that out here, I can’t say enough. He’s been there for me. This week he took time, again, to help me so much with my putting.”
It was Kelly’s toughness that earned him the third win of his career. Also, a little lack of toughness on the part of his competitors. Charles Howell blistered the front nine with a 31 and grabbed the lead with a birdie at the 11th hole, but he slipped up coming in. He overshot the 15th green with a sand wedge and made bogey, then three-putted the 17th green for another bogey. He drilled a fairway wood over the 18th green in two and wasn’t able to get up and down for a birdie.
Kelly got up-and-down for birdie at the par-5 11th to climb back into the mix, hit it close at the 14th for another birdie and parred his way in. Kelly, who had hoped to play college hockey at the University of Hartford only to find out after arriving as a freshman that the school had dropped the program, ought to be tough.
Losing the lead didn’t bother him, he said. It might even have helped. “You can look at it like maybe it took the pressure off me,” he said. “It wasn’t my tournament to lose anymore. It was my tournament to go get.”
He got it, but not before a few tense moments over that final two-footer, which was no gimme. He said a couple of fans even yelled “Miss it!” That roused the hockey player in him. “That was probably the best thing I could have heard because I wasn’t going to give them the satisfaction,” Kelly said. “That made me turn my focus to the putt.”
You know the rest. While the award ceremony went on at the 18th green, Stricker waited by the scoring area and talked on his cell phone. He was flying back to Wisconsin on a private jet, taking a week off before the Players Championship. And he was waiting for Kelly. “I think he’s going home now, too,” Stricker said.
So, he’s hitching a plane ride home with you? Stricker grinned. “Yeah, that doesn’t seem right, does it?” he said. “He should be paying.”
It was great to be King of New Orleans, if only for a day.