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Kelly has been in this spot before at Players

He learned he was good enough in 2001, and swing improvements since have TPC co-leader's confidence soaring.

Published March 27, 2004

PONTE VEDRA BEACH - It was daunting, the idea of going head-to-head with Tiger Woods while he was in the midst of one of the greatest stretches in golf history. Three years ago Woods was just a few weeks from completing the "Tiger Slam," victories in four straight major championships.

Along the way Woods captured the Players Championship. Blinded by the bright lights was Jerry Kelly, who led entering the final round of that tournament but shot 73 to finish fourth.

Not all was lost, however.

"It was a big breakthrough for me," said Kelly, 37, who captured his first two PGA Tour titles the next year. "Mentally I could hang with the best players in the world. Down the stretch, I hit the ball where I wanted to. (But) I didn't have a very good swing. I was a very athletic ball-striker, meaning I had a lot of timing, and it wasn't pretty, but I got the job done."

Kelly put himself in a similar position Friday, shooting 6-under-par 66 at the TPC-Sawgrass Stadium Course to share the second-round lead at the Players Championship with Kevin Sutherland. Both were at 9-under 135.

Ernie Els (69) and first-round leader Adam Scott (72) were two back, tied for third. Vijay Singh (68) and Padraig Harrington (70) were at 138.

Woods made his 120th consecutive cut on the PGA Tour by shooting 69, which included an eagle and two birdies. He finished at even 144. Eighty-three players made the cut at 146 or better. Woods was in danger of missing after an opening 75.

"I take great pride in what I do on the golf course," said Woods, tied for 44th. "I go out there and give absolutely everything I've got. I didn't hit the ball as well as I probably needed to, but I scored. And that's the name of the game."

That was what Kelly did most of the time, but he never felt secure about his ability to do so consistently. Several years ago he hooked up with noted swing instructor Rick Smith.

"He said, "Boy, I'm glad you came to me, because if you can play well with that swing you can be a great player someday.' Yeah, thanks Rick," Kelly said. "I'm sure he wonders what I'd been doing for the last seven years, but it was really a month ago that I got the feel. It's like an epiphany. I know about my golf swing that much better. I know how to hit the ball.

"The difference between then and now is I was relying on timing, and I had no clue if a good shot or a bad shot was going to come out. I'd try my best, but it was a timing thing. Now if I do what I know I have to do, a good shot is going to come out."

Kelly played the first 36 holes without a bogey, getting up and down for par 13 times.

"You've got to have some luck out there," said John Daly (73), tied in 21st place. "I don't care who you are. You can hit some good shots that turn out bad and some bad shots that turn out good."

Kelly plays in the final pairing today with Sutherland, 39, whose only PGA Tour victory came at the 2002 Match Play Championship. Plenty of players were within strik-ing distance, including Els, who missed the tournament last year because of an injury and has never finished better than a tie for eighth, in 1996.

"To be honest with you, I've never really had a great time around here," Els said. "You know my game: I like where I have a bit of room off the tees and you can have some fun. But my ball-striking has been very good. It reminds me of the start of the year again, and I'd like to build on that. I want to forget about how tough the golf course is and play the shots that I need to play and see what I end up, just give it a full go for once."

[Last modified March 27, 2004, 02:10:29]

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