Jerry Kelly is playing through chemo drugs, still in hunt at American Family Insurance Championship

MADISON, Wisc. – In advance of the U.S. Senior Open at SentryWorld in Stevens Point last summer, Jerry Kelly talked about having to play through a wrist issue – an odd one where it was going out of joint, and how inflamed it felt despite his best efforts at rehabilitation.

Just about a year later, as he readied for the American Family Insurance Championship that started Friday at University Ridge Golf Course in Madison, Kelly acknowledged that inflammation had spread to other joints – to the point where he couldn’t get out of bed, or a chair.

Kelly, 57, sought out a cause and testing discovered that he had rheumatoid arthritis. The autoimmune disease causes the immune system to attack healthy cells by mistake, causing inflammation in joints. Kelly also said the testing revealed lyme disease, which in its late stages can also cause swelling in joints.

The Madison native said he has been put on a regimen of the chemotherapy drug methotrexate and is in his eighth week of treatment.

“Small levels compared to what normal chemo patients take,” Kelly said Thursday. “It’s just kind of a first line of defense trying to get those white blood cells that are killing you from the inside, they’re eating healthy tissue. Got to my lungs, got to my esophagus, my stomach. It didn’t get to my heart, which that’s one place that it gets to, so I’m thankful for that. I went through a week in Newport (in March) where I couldn’t eat. Anything that I ate was just getting attacked from the inside. I feel like my lungs are getting a little bit better.

“It’s taken a lot of muscle away from me, and the fatigue is real. You know, I just felt a couple times where I couldn’t get the adrenaline up for tournaments. You know, I have a hard time playing without adrenaline.”

Kelly has kept playing, and the AmFam Championship is his 11th start of 2024 on the PGA Tour Champions. He tied for second in his tournament, the Cologuard Classic in Tucson, Arizona, and has two other top-10 finishes.

He opened on Friday with a 69 and joked after a putt that he might need a few cocktails.

“I made a 20-footer for par on 10. I’d like to say it got me fired up, but I actually said, ‘I’m going to start drinking tonight.’ The next thing you know, I made four in a row,” he joked after the opening round. “Again, it’s smoke and mirrors out there again. I didn’t feel like my body responded very well.

“I know I’m jumpy, but that’s ridiculous, a little explosion on every shot, doesn’t matter if it’s driver or a putt. So, you know, battled through it and see if I can shoot a couple low ones, who knows.”

Some of Kelly’s statistics have been impressive. He’s leading the tour in driving accuracy and scrambling and is sixth in actual scoring average and seventh in greens in regulation. An indicator for his loss of strength, however, might be the fact he is 57th in driving distances (269.7 yards).

“I’m used to, in tournament mode, just thinking of what I want to do and my muscles will actually cooperate, connect with my brain, let my autonomous system kind of take over and it comes out,” he said. “There’s a bit of a disconnect there right now. That’s what I have to fight through. I may have to talk it out more, I have to be clearer about what’s going on because one thing comes into my head and I forget about everything else that I really need to do. There’s some things that I may need to change with my pre-shot to be crystal clear. And I’m bouncing around all the time, I’m changing shots when I’m over the ball.

“That’s why I’m so jumpy, because I’m reacting to everything, I’m not just being kind of a robot swinger. That’s hurting me. I think it’s hurting me because I don’t have the strength, I can’t save it as much. It’s just different, you know? If I can relax on myself a little bit more, I think that part will come back, but as anybody knows that gets any kind of a diagnosis, you go through a little bit of an anger phase and that’s either going to make you fight or flight. It’s going to make me fight. I’ve just got to find my way mentally through that kind of situation, not get down on myself and really get it done.”

Kelly hoped a return to his hometown – and a course and tournament where he is a two-time champion – can give him some extra juice. But even with some physical obstacles perhaps stacking the odds against him in a talented field, the fiery ex-hockey player has never shied away from a challenge.

“I’m not going to quit,” Kelly said. “I’ve gotten down on myself fairly hard because my body’s not responding to my brain, things like that. There’s a little disconnect going on and that bothers me, but there’s still – there’s still the fight.

“As long as there’s a fight left to be fought, I’m going to be in the mix, I’m going to be in the middle of it. So I expect myself to play well this week. It’s a course that I really like. I’m going to try and find a way, that’s all I’m going to try and do every single week, every single day. Yeah, I’ve got a few years to figure it all out.”

Story originally appeared on GolfWeek