Troy Kelly would seriously contend in a U.S. Open “short-drive” contest, living 8 minutes from Chambers Bay.
But it’s taken him 10 years to get here, and it’s been an excruciating walk.
At the practice range Wednesday morning, Kelly lofted dozens of iron shots off toward the escarpment that provides the rugged background to the links-style course by the Tacoma Narrows.
The view is familiar, as he can see the course from his house.
Shot after shot, the contact is pure and the flight of the ball is controlled and artfully shaped.
But when the 37-year-old Kelly takes a break for an interview, the answers seem to be coming from a retired NFL linebacker. The man is an orthopedic nightmare.
It’s as if he asked a genie in a bottle for Jack Nicklaus’ game, but in the confusion ended up with Nicklaus’ hips.
When he was 31, persistent pain forced him to have his left hip replaced. His right knee also required surgery, and now he’s dealing with a painful torn labrum in his right hip and an arthritic left knee.
Kelly said he has some congenital problems with his joints, and the demands of golfing and walking left him with bone-on-bone grinding in his hips and knees.
“I’ve been trying to lose some weight to take some heat off my joints and make them feel better,” he said. Weighing in at 237 last winter, he’s down to 209.
A golf prodigy who started competing in state junior events at age 6, Kelly went on to star at the University of Washington, taking second in the NCAA championship in 1999.
And after action on some of the minor tours, he qualified for his first U.S. Open in 2005 at Pinehurst No. 2. The first-round experience was a disaster, a 13-over-par 83. But showing he could take a punch and pull himself off the canvas, he came back with one of the best rounds of Friday, a 3-under 67.
But he would see more major surgeries than major tournaments.
Between surgeries and rehabbing, he mounted a strong 2009, gaining his PGA Tour card, and had career-high earnings of nearly $800,000 in 2012, when he took second at the Greenbrier Classic (losing a playoff).
Along the way, with the operations, and the waking up in pain, Kelly dealt with the natural doubts. Is golf worth it?
“I’ve had those thoughts, sure, because it seemed like I was always fighting it all the time,” he said. “It gets old to not feel healthy and not feel comfortable, and to not be able to practice as much as you need to. It gets frustrating.”
A few months ago, he “could barely bend over and grab stuff,” he said. The doctor told him to shed the weight. He did.
He gave up the sodas and cutback on the size of his portions. And he got back to work.
He had to play 36 holes last week at the Tumble Creek Club in Cle Elum, shooting 68-71 to qualify for the Open. With his brother Ryan caddying, he then hit Chambers Bay for practice rounds Wednesday through Sunday, and has been laying low and resting since then.
“My body feels pretty good right now,” he said. The right hip and left knee, he said, “are basically day-to-day … some days I feel better than others, but basically I feel pretty good.”
Ryan Kelly contends he’s better than pretty good. “I think he’s playing the best I’ve seen him playing in a long time,” he said. “He worked on some things and I love the way he’s hitting it. I think we’ve got a good game plan. I mean, how cool is it that he gets to sleep in his own bed about a mile from the course?”
And his hips and knees?
“Yeah,” Ryan Kelly laughed. “He’s bionic.”
He may need to be to get around this demanding terrain.
“Obviously, this course is going to put everything to the test,” he said. “Your play off the tee, hitting your shots to the green in the landing zone, and controlling your spin. If you’re off just a little bit, it can make you pay.”
Kelly has already paid a heavy price. In doctors’ bills alone.
The U.S. Open guidebook reports that he’s 1,599 in the world rankings this week. And his age makes it fair to wonder how often he’ll get shots at this level of competition.
“I’m 37, not a spring chicken,” he said.
Not a spring chicken, perhaps, but you’re certainly not an old cluck, he was comforted.
“No, but my body has felt that way.”