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Steve Stricker and Jerry Kelly are golfs Odd Couple

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DeutscheBank Logo 2007NORTON, Mass. – Steve Stricker and Jerry Kelly are polar opposite personalities.

One is as cool as an autumn evening in their native Wisconsin; the other can be as fiery as a badger with a toothache.

As a pair, though, the chemistry works.

You saw it Sunday in the third round of the Deutsche Bank Championship.
Steve Stricker
Steve Stricker is searching for his third win in 2009 (Getty Images).
Side by side, the Wisconsin boys took flight early in ascending to the top of the leaderboard at TPC Boston.

They both birdied three of the first four holes and shared the lead early in the round.

“We were pulling each other along there,” Stricker said. “We fed off one another, and I just had a little bit stronger finish than he did.”

After carving a utility club from 237 yards to the 18th hole, Stricker holed a 5-footer for eagle, closing out the low round of the day, a 6-under-par 65.

At 13 under, Stricker shares the third-round lead with Retief Goosen and Sean O’Hair. Kelly’s right there, though. His 67 positioned him just two shots off the lead.

“We complement each other well,” Stricker said.

Stricker, 42, and Kelly, 42, have been competing since they were juniors in Wisconsin. Stricker grew up in Edgerton, about a half hour from Madison, where Kelly grew up. Stricker went on to play golf at the University of Illinois, Kelly at the University of Hartford.

An outdoorsman, Stricker’s the unflappable sort. His playing style matches his persona outside the ropes. A former hockey player, Kelly plays with passion. He’s more outwardly excitable than Stricker, whether he’s inside or outside the ropes.

“Maybe that’s why we get along so well,” Kelly said. “I think it took him a little longer to warm up to me, but I won him over.”

Kelly said their friendship deepened when they started families.

“We like each other,” Kelly said. “We’re good friends. It’s not just two guys from Wisconsin. We’re real friends.”

Kelly’s wife, Carol, and Stricker’s wife, Nicki, have become close also. So have their first-borns, who have grown up together on Tour. Jerry’s son, Cooper, just turned 11. So did Stricker’s oldest daughter, Bobbi Maria.

“Cooper and Bobbi were born two weeks apart,” Carol said. “They are great buddies. We started getting close after they were born.”

The Strickers also have a 3-year-old daughter, Isabella.

The families will have some nervous moments Monday with Stricker and Kelly competing for big prizes.

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Player: Jerry Kelly
  • Player: Steve Stricker
  • Event: Deutsche Bank Championship
Stricker is second to Tiger Woods in the FedEx Cup points standings. Stricker will move to No. 1 if he wins Monday and Woods finishes third or worse. Stricker will also move to No. 1 if he finishes second and Woods finishes 27th or worse. Woods is nine shots behind.

In last week’s start of the FedEx Cup playoffs, Stricker had a chance to win at The Barclays. He missed a 10-foot putt at the final hole that would have forced a playoff with Heath Slocum.

With his second-place finish to Woods in the inaugural year of the FedEx Cup playoffs, and his strong run this season, Stricker is earning a reputation as golf’s Mr. September.

What’s bringing out his best?

“I think I’m a little bit more relaxed,” Stricker said of knowing the season’s nearly at an end and that he’ll be returning to family and hunting and an off season he enjoys. “I’ve had a good year. There’s really nothing for me to lose coming into these playoffs.”

Stricker’s a two-time winner this season, claiming the Crowne Plaza Colonial and the John Deere Classic, boosting his PGA Tour victory total to six. Kelly has also won this season, claiming the Zurich Classic of New Orleans for his third PGA Tour title.

At 28th in FedEx Cup points, Kelly is focused just as much as Stricker on the big prize, the FedEx Cup trophy and the $10 million jackpot that goes with it. With a victory Sunday, Kelly could jump as high as No. 2 in points.

“This is the playoffs, you saw what Heath Slocum (did),” Kelly said.

Slocum jumped 121 spots to No. 3 by winning The Barclays.

If Kelly wins, he’ll owe a debt of gratitude to Stricker.

For years, Kelly said he’s been trying to unearth the secrets to Stricker’s smooth putting stroke. Finally, at the end of last year, he got Stricker to give him some intensive instruction.

“I finally got the good information out of him when it was to his benefit,” Kelly cracked.

Before they teamed up to play Greg Norman’s Merrill Lynch Shootout last December, Stricker tutored Kelly. Though they only finished sixth in the event, something clicked for Kelly.

“I’ve probably made my biggest turnaround on the greens this year,” Kelly said.

Kelly jumped from 156th in putting average last year to 30th this season.

What did he learn?

“I’m just copying him better,” Kelly said.

Kelly hopes that he has been as helpful to Stricker. He hopes his friendship mattered when Stricker was struggling with his game and failed to finish among the top 125 in money in 2003, '04 and '05. Stricker rebounded to win PGA Tour Comeback Player of the Year in ’06 and ’07.

“I’ve always liked Jerry,” Stricker said. “You’ve got to take Jerry with a grain of salt and let him go do the things that he’s going to do. He’s a great guy. He’s a great family man. We enjoy being around each other.”

They especially relish being on leaderboards together.