VERONA, Wis. — Twice on Sunday Jerry Kelly was ready to give his version of a concession speech. Less than 45 minutes later the Madison resident was holding up the glass trophy after winning the American Family Insurance Championship.
Kelly played a great final round with seven birdies and had a one-shot lead when he stepped to the tee on the 18th hole. A birdie or par likely would have given him the win. Instead, he bogeyed for just the second time the entire tournament.
He walked off the green in a three-way tie at -15 and behind him Retief Goosen smoked a perfect shot within a few feet of the hole, giving him a perfect opportunity to break the tie and take the lead with a short putt. Kelly made his way to the media room, fully expecting Goosen to make the shot and waiting for all “what happened” questions from reporters. But then, Goosen’s putt lipped out, giving Kelly life again and he left the media area.
Minutes later, though, fellow Madison resident Steve Stricker, also at 15-under, put himself in position to win with a birdie putt. Back down the steps to the media room came Kelly, expecting the guy he later called the best putter he’s been around to knock it in. But, like Goosen, Stricker couldn’t finish.
“(I) misread it a little bit. I didn’t think it was going to break as much as it did and it just snapped off at the end. I thought I hit a pretty good putt,” Stricker said. “But, yeah, a little disappointing when you get that opportunity to close it out and have about an eight- or 10-footer to do it, you want to make it and be done, but I didn’t.
“I mean, I couldn’t ask for a better situation. I hit a great shot in there and I had nothing to lose at that point. It’s mine to win. You want to capitalize on those.”
Kelly needed both men to miss relatively close putts and it happened.
“I wasn’t going to leave (the course), but I came (into the media room) and I sat down,” Kelly said. “I was sitting right here when Goosen missed, so I figured I better come back and sit down right here when Strick was putting just in case I had to talk with you guys again.
“I wasn’t going to walk out, but it was going to be probably pretty short, I’m guessing.”
All of the dramatics led to a three-way playoff. Stricker bogeyed the first playoff hole, leaving Goosen and Kelly. They each got pars on the second playoff hole before Kelly birdied the third for the win.
“I’m thankful I got that second chance when you’re the one who kind of fails and lets guys into it,” Kelly said. “Then you feel like you’ve got that second life. I didn’t feel like I needed to go to the range because I felt like I was still pretty jacked up from watching everything that was going on. Yeah, it was kind of surreal. It was fun.”
It was Kelly’s first win in the state of Wisconsin, his first win on the Champions Tour since Jan. 2018 and his fourth win overall. It also was his first win since his father passed away.
“The chills were flying up and down. It was pretty amazing,” Kelly said. “You know, my mom saying the sun came out, my dad was there. I haven’t won since my dad passed, so this was the first one and I was talking to him all the time. There were a lot of birdies coming up and chirping right next to me and I was like, ‘Hey, hey, Dad, how are you?’ It was kind of surreal.”
This was the fourth year of the tournament and every time the winner was not the leader coming into the final round.
“It really is truly awesome,” Kelly said. “You guys know what it’s about. It’s about friends and family, and to be able to do it in front of everybody…this is pretty sweet.”