KAUPULEHU — Things got rocky in a hurry for Jerry Kelly at Hualalai on Saturday.
Staring down the wide 16th fairway, Kelly sliced his drive into an usually untouched patch of a’a lava. After a short search-and-rescue, the PGA Tour Champions newly-named rookie of the Year found his ball, saved bogey, kept his head, and down just a stroke, gave himself a chance.
He would still need a little help to chase down Colin Montgomerie, but that came when the Hall of Fame Scot made an inexplicable mistake of his own on 18, setting up a finish for the ages in the season-opening event.
In front of a crowd of 400-plus on the 18th green, Kelly nailed a 17-foot birdie putt, turning a one-shot deficit into a victory when he watched Montgomerie miss a 6-foot par putt wide on Saturday at the Mitsubishi Electric Championship.
“I’ve had the best mental attitude that I have ever had and I put it to the test on 16, I’ll tell you that,” Kelly said, who finished at 18-under for the tournament.
Kelly became the 10th player to win in their first try at Hualalai, and the third in the last four years. The event includes winners from last season, past champions of the event, major champions and Hall of Famers.
Kelly has a long history in Hawaii. His debut was in 1996 at the United Airlines Hawaiian Open — now the Sony Open. Since, Kelly has played on Oahu for the last 20 years, winning twice in the Aloha State. He took home the title at the Sony in 2002, making him just the second player to win both tournaments, John Cook being the other.
“I talk to the spirit of the islands all the time and it means a lot to me to win here again,” Kelly said. “They did it for me in ‘02 and they’ve been with me ever since. It’s just fantastic.”
Montgomerie left the scoring tent in a hurry and said he had no comments for the media.
Kelly started the day two stokes back, but the lead was quickly erased when Montgomerie hit in the water on the course’s notoriously difficult par-3 fifth hole, resulting in a double bogey.
An eagle on the par 5 seventh helped Kelly’s cause, too.
“That was probably my best shot of the day,” Kelly said. “I mean, pinpoint exactly where I wanted.”
The duo went back and forth on the back nine, until Kelly’s miscue on No. 16. Up to that point, Kelly had gone 24 consecutive holes without a bogey and it was his first on the back nine all week.
“It was shocking. I stayed really solid within myself all week but I tried to hit the crap out of that one and it cost me,” Kelly said. “I knew that was an anomaly so I could still make great swings coming down the stretch. I took a big old backswing and I couldn’t come back from it, so it showed me a lot.”
On 18, Montgomerie hit his driver off the tee into the fairway bunker. He flew his shot over the green, but looked like he would save par when he hit a nice chip from the rough. After Montgomerie asked the crowd to be quiet, a pin drop from the restaurant above the 18th green could have been heard.
And then came the sigh from the crowd as the putt went wide, meaning no extra golf would be played with the daylight fading.
“After I made that birdie, I thought we were going to chase the darkness,” Kelly said.
David Toms shot 67 and finished two shots back, and Miguel Angel Jimenez was another stroke back after a 66.
“My caddie and I were talking about it there finishing up today, it would be a nice place to come every single year, so I’ve got some work to do in order to do that,” Toms said. “I’ve enjoyed it. They take great care of us.”
Bernhard Langer closed with a 70 to finish at 10 under and in a tie for 16th place. He has still never shot a round worse than par at Hualalai.