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Couples, Kelly, Clarke Own Day 2 at Hualalai

January 23, 2021, 10:01 AM HST
* Updated January 23, 10:13 AM
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Jerry Kelly thinks out his second shot on the 18th hole at the Mitsubishi Classic at Hualalai. Friday, Jan. 22, 2021. Big Island Now photo.

Moving day at the Mitsubishi Electric Championship at Hualalai belonged to Jerry Kelly and Fred Couples.

One started in the afternoon, the other in the morning, but both played their way through a blustery Big Island day into the last and second-to-last Saturday pairings, respectively.

Kelly posted a 5-under 67 to vault into a tie for the 36-hole lead with Darren Clarke, who has been at or near the top of the leaderboard all tournament.

“Man, you strive to be in the last group, that’s what we’re out here for, no doubt,” Kelly said. “I would be very happy to be in the last group playing with those guys and just know what’s happened in front of me already.”

At 13-under par, Kelly and Clarke hold a two-shot lead over Retief Goosen. The South African stood alone atop of the leaderboard following a first-round 62 but said the greens got the best of him Friday — a day on which Goosen required nine more swings to find the clubhouse than he had just one round before.

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“As good as the putter was yesterday, (that was) as bad as it was today. Just couldn’t make a thing. Lost sort of my speed on the greens quite badly,” Goosen said. “Yesterday was overcast, so your visual is a little different than today with the sun. Greens just looked quicker to me, and I kept under hitting my pace.”

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Couples will join Goosen on the tee box at 1 p.m. after scorching the course Friday at Four Seasons Hualalai to the tune of a 9-under 63 — tied for the second-lowest round of the week.

“(It was) much needed to go fairly low and then it just kept getting better and better,” Couples said. “Today, when I hit it close, I made the putts. … It was a really good round.”

Retief Goosen putts on the 18th hole at the Mitsubishi Electric Championship at Hualala on Friday, Jan. 22, 2021. Big Island Now photo.

Clarke, who rounds out the top four heading into the tournament’s third and final day, has dealt with fewer ups and downs as one of the most consistent players on the course throughout the week. He posted scores of 8-under and 5-under in the first two rounds, respectively.

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“I’ve been around long enough, you’ve just got to hang in there,” Clarke said. “When the wind got up a little bit … on the back nine there, it definitely got a lot more tricky, but I don’t mind that. That’s what I’ve been doing down in Abaco for two and a half months.”

Clarke’s comfort level with the wind will offer an advantage Saturday, as easterly winds of 20 to 30 miles per hour with gusts as high as 45 mph are forecast for the Kohala Coast, just north of the golf course at Hualalai.

Ten golfers are within five shots of Clarke’s and Kelly’s lead, and those who navigate a wind that often strengthens and shifts direction later in the day will have the best chance of making a run at the $310,000 first prize. The total purse for the tournament is $1.8 million.

Those trailing, however, face a tough task. Clarke has the wind in his pocket, while Kelly has a rock solid history when frontrunning on the final day of a tournament. Six times in his PGA Champions Tour career he has stepped onto the final round’s first tee box with a lead. He has taken home the trophy on three of those occasions.

KJ Choi prepares to tee off on the par-3 17th hole at the Mitsubishi Electric Championship at Hualalai on Friday, Jan. 22, 2021. Big Island Now photo.

Kelly also has a wealth of experience at Hualalai, winning this very tournament in 2018 after turning 50 and joining the senior golf circuit the year before.

“I’ve played every one these holes from every direction you can possibly imagine,” he said. “I’ve been coming here for a really long time, longer than I’ve been 50, let’s put it that way.”

When asked what kind of Saturday score he’d need to outpace the rest of the field, Kelly didn’t mince words.

“The lowest one,” he said. “Nothing else matters.”

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