CHARLOTTE — Kevin Kisner knows Quail Hollow almost as well as his own back porch, and in a tournament as hazard-filled and hard to score in as this PGA Championship has been, that’s an edge. The red hots and the more established champions crowded around him on the leader board, trying so hard to make things happen, while the banty little guy acted like his cleats belonged up on the clubhouse rail.
Kisner is a hook and bullet type who still lives in his home town of Aiken, S.C., because, “When I was broke, that’s the only place I could afford to buy a house.” He has made the two-hour drive from there to here every Thanksgiving and Christmas of his life to visit his 93-year-old grandmother who lives in Charlotte, and along the way he got well-acquainted with Quail Hollow, learned to read the mysterious side-slopes and slick mounded greens that have so humiliated his betters. That’s not to say he won’t get overtaken by a bigger name player on Sunday, with the likes of the electric Hideki Matsuyama right behind him and thirsting for a first major and the proven entity Louis Oosthuizen just two strokes back. Just that Kisner is comfortable in this place, and comfortable with a one-stroke lead after 54 holes, and not a bit afraid of any of it. “I like beating people, and I like competing,” he says.
Kisner, 33, has fought through every level of minor league golf to get here, “played mini-tours, learned how to win there; played the Web.com Tour, learned how to win there; got to the PGA Tour, learned how to win there,” he says. “The next step is competing and winning major championships.” The learning has come hard: at 5 feet 10 and just 160 pounds, he has to get every bit out of himself to keep up with the bigger hitters, and he has become respected as one of the fiercest battlers in the field. “Maybe because I beat everybody on Tuesdays,” he jokes. A sparky-eyed sort who talks to himself frankly after shots, he realized while he was trudging along on the Web.com Tour that he wasn’t a good enough ball striker to survive for long on the PGA Tour, so he rebuilt his game from the ground up with instructor John Tillery in 2013, curing a flawed backswing. The result is a self-made man who has climbed to No. 25 in the world. When he lifted the trophy at the Dean & DeLuca Invitational at Colonial this season for the second PGA Tour win of his career, he rewarded his longtime caddie with a Ford F-150 King Ranch pickup truck as a thank you.
The gesture seemed pure Kisner, regular, unpretentious, real, yet classy. When he is not on a golf course he is drinking beer with his old friends in the country. “Go out where there’s no cellphone service and spend the afternoon,” he says. “Love to fish, love to shoot guns, love to hunt, just get away from it. That’s my favorite part. I love my core group of friends at home. They don’t ask me why I made bogey on the last hole that cost me 20 grand or anything like that. That’s why I hang out with them.”
Kisner is not trying to be any more or less than who he really is, and you get the feeling that’s a major asset at Quail Hollow, the 7,600-yard par-71 that has baited and chastened so many players through three rounds, especially the brutal three closing holes known as The Green Mile.
“You got to be able to take 30 feet, and take your medicine,” Kisner said.
The length invites egotistic chance-taking, yet the greens punish it, the hardest and fastest the players have seen all season.
“If you try and overpower it too much or get too aggressive, it will jump up and get you at some point,” Rickie Fowler said.
It got everybody at some point — nobody was immune from a double bogey. It got Fowler, who struck his tee shot into the dank water at the par-3 17th for a double and lost four shots over the last three holes for a 73 to stand six shots back. It got Jason Day, who double-bogeyed the short par-4 14th and then took a quadruple 8 when he hit into the woods, followed by a hedge on the final hole. And it got Kisner.
His approach from the rough on the par-4 16th skewed into the pond and cost him a double, and then he bogeyed the 18th as well when he hooked a 7-iron and just avoided a creek, for a 72 and a total of 7-under-par 206.
“Stupid play,” he said. “Just puts a little more fire into me for tomorrow.”
But they were rare mistakes from Kisner, who had gone 24 consecutive holes without a single bogey between his second and third round. Birdies at the short 14th, a par 4, with a wedge that he struck closer to the stick than his own height, and another at the generous par-5 15th had given him a two-stroke lead before the errant swing into the water. For the week he has generally been straight off the tee and vectored in to the greens, while others were chopping out of the spongy Bermuda grass. And he has done it all while seeming to stay within himself, with no sense of extending beyond his capacities, or of being intimidated by the occasion.
“I know the golf course,” he said.
Of course, that could change on Sunday. Kisner is self-aware enough to admit his unremarkable history in the majors makes him no favorite. In 11 previous appearances, all he has are “tons of 30th to 40th and 50th-place finishes,” he acknowledged. This season he was tied for 43rd at the Masters, tied for 58th in the U.S. Open at Erin Hills and tied for 54th in the British Open at Royal Birkdale.
He is just a guy with a little bit of a hometown advantage, who seems more comfortable on the course than anyone else. And who plays the game with an interesting, fortifying self-honesty.
“At the end of the day, it’s just golf, right,” he says. “I have to hit my tee ball where I’m trying to look, and if I don’t, I have to find a way to get the ball in the hole the fastest. I think players spend too much work into figuring out golf courses, instead of just getting the ball in the hole. If that’s more the mind-set, things aren’t so hard to look at out there. It’s just a game then.”