Practice range. Riviera. The Wednesday afternoon before the 2008 Northern Trust Open. A grown man is swinging a golf club, talking to a laptop computer on a folding chair. Swinging. Adjusting. Talking again.
From a distance, you couldn't hear anything but the man, Jerry Kelly, addressing the hardware in the most earnest tones. Once you got closer, though, it all became clear.
Kelly was taking a lesson.
The teacher was Jim Schuman, men's golf coach for Kelly's beloved Wisconsin Badgers, and also Jerry's brother-in-law. (Think about it: Do you take advice from your brother-in-law?) Schuman's head appeared on the screen, watching intently through the Internet camera. Swing. Talk. Correction. More work. All from 1,900 miles away.
Kelly laughed when I asked him about it.
'Can't find anyone here who will work with me,' he kidded. But the episode said more about the usually cheerful Kelly's work ethic than about his fun side.
Bottom line is, Kelly has worked for his three PGA Tour victories. And he has never stopped, even through a seven-year wait for this last one at the Zurich Classic of New Orleans.
Kelly, who is a favorite among golf journalists for his dry wit and willingness to discuss all things hockey, can often be found on the range, working with or without laptop, comfortable in his relative obscurity. Stars downrange may tow around a dozen notebook scribblers and photographers, the modern emblems of sports success. Kelly looks up, toes another ball into place with an iron, and keeps working.
Rarely does he grind so hard, though, that he won't tell you what he's up to. The answers are often memorable.
'Im a poster boy for spin,' he once told me, looking ruefully at the head of his driver. 'This should help keep me from spinning my tee ball too much.' He teed up another ball and stroked it with the club, which at that time was the first incarnation of Cleveland Golf's HiBore driver. (Kelly has been a Cleveland stalwart for nearly a dozen years.) The ball sailed upward in a powerful arc.
'Looks pretty good to me,' I said.
'Well, yknow, its OK,' he said. 'But did you see how it was beginning to balloon, sorta?'
'Um. I guess so.'
That kind of perfectionism led Kelly to a reputation for occasional hot-headedness when things went awry on the golf course. But in recent years, he seems more in control, more willing to plow through adversity.
Kelly today is a modern guy, taking laptop lessons and looking at swing video on his iPod. But he is also substantially old school, always willing to put in the work with the support staff in the Cleveland tech trailer. And the day after his win in the Big Easy, the tech guys, already in Charlotte for the Quail Hollow event, were all smiles.
'I've been at this for four years, but some of us have been with Jerry for seven years, since his last win,' said Michael Jolly, one of the Cleveland tour techs. 'We know how much work went into getting him back here. It was a day-to-day, week-to-week process.'
There was a lot of experimenting and changing. Kelly even plucked a Cleveland putter from a Nevada Bob's and put it in his bag. He dutifully worked new irons and other clubs into his bag when Cleveland updated its line. And last week came the final piece of the puzzle.
'The shaft he had [in his driver], he had a couple complaints about it,' Jolly said. 'He wanted it to do some things better. What he felt in his hands wasn't what he wanted. And he was looking for a ball flight that would let him go at it without going left.'
Aha. The famous death move to the left. It's not uncommon. For example, Vijay Singh has it too, and has also conquered it. In Kelly's case, it took some experimenting with shafts. The hard work paid off last week, just before the New Orleans event began, when Kelly settled on a Miyazaki graphite model. The new shaft is stiff flex, 72 grams, low torque ' but without that 'board-y' hand feedback that so many anti-twist shafts seem to have. It was a perfect feel-player solution.
'Jerry's very easy-going to work with, but he knows what he wants to feel,' Jolly said. 'He can't always quantify it, so there's a translation process. But he knows definitely what he's looking for.'
It helped the translation process that Cleveland is now owned by SRI Sports of Japan, the same company that owns equipment company Srixon. The Miyazaki shaft is an SRI project. With an extremely low-lofted driver ' 7.5 degrees ' and an inch trimmed off the tip, Kelly's driver started singing to his hands.
And the satisfying feel at impact led to some good stats ' Kelly hit nearly 80 percent of his greens-in-regulation for the week. And that led to an even better feel in his hands
A trophy. Not bad for a guy who talks to computers.