Sunday, July 08, 2012

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Troy Kelly looks for first PGA tour win

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. - It can start so innocently. An 8-foot putt curls in on No. 1, then a 20-footer drops on the second hole.

Adrenaline builds. Confidence rises.

And suddenly, a guy who's never been in the same area code as the top of a PGA Tour leaderboard, a guy who didn't know if he'd still be able to play competitive golf as recently as two years ago, goes to bed Saturday night with a good chance to win The Greenbrier Classic.

That is, if he can sleep at all.

Meet Troy Kelly. You might remember him from such Tour triumphs as ... hmm ... well, that time in February that he finished tied for 37th at the Mayakoba Golf Classic. That's about as good as it's gotten for the 33-year-old out of Tacoma, Wash. He earned a little more than $15,000 that weekend.

Today promises to be considerably more lucrative.

After firing an 8-under par 62 on Saturday, Kelly sits in second place at 12-under. He'll play in today's final pairing with U.S. Open champ Webb Simpson, who leads the tournament by two strokes.

"I played out here for one year and I didn't even sniff getting here," said Kelly, who missed 14 of 17 cuts in his only previous season on Tour in 2009. "I've been hoping to get into this position for a long time and get the juices flowing, just kind of get the experience so I can build off it. If you don't get here, you're never going to learn how you feel."

So how will he feel? More importantly, how will he play in his first legitimate shot at a $1 million payday?

Nobody knows. Least of all Kelly, who hopes it can be something resembling what he did during his bogey-free round on Saturday.

"It was just nice to see some putts go in," he said. "I haven't made a lot of putts the last ... I mean, pretty much the whole year. I mean, if you look at my statistics, my ranking's not very good in the putting category."

Or any other. He's 464th in the World Golf Rankings. Among American players, he's 153rd.

Yet there he was on Saturday, hitting 89 percent of greens in regulation, uncorking accurate 300-yard drives and bolting up 21 spots from the end of the second round.

The fact that he's playing at all - much less this well - is a blessing for Kelly, whose arthritic hip required surgery in 2010. He'd been playing through pain for several years before he finally got it diagnosed and treated.

"I didn't know if I'd ever get back to where I could actually play at a high level," Kelly said. "That was my biggest concern: Am I going to be able to walk a golf course like everybody else without being tired and hurting?"

After about five months off, he realized he could play. The "high level" part was relative. In 2011, he finished 11th on the Nationwide Tour money list to earn his PGA Tour card.

The son of a golf pro, Kelly started playing competitive tournaments at age 6. But the sport wasn't the year-round obsession for him that it was for some of his current peers.

The cold, rainy winters of the Pacific Northwest weren't conducive to golf. Kelly turned to basketball, where he became an all-league high school shooting guard with a decent jumper and a little bit of driving ability.

"As a kid, I think you've got to do some other things, you know?" he said. "I think it was kind of a good break for me. I knew guys were leaving and going to Arizona as juniors, and by the time they got to college, they didn't want to play anymore. They got burned out."

Not Kelly, who maintained his passion for the game as he climbed through lesser tours, waiting for a day like Saturday.

With his brother Ryan carrying his bag, Kelly birdied five holes on the front nine, reading the greens masterfully and seeing his self-trust mount throughout the round.

It can start so innocently. And today, it could end a million different ways.

Stay tuned.

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