Golf

S.C. native Kisner enters weekend with shot at breakthrough victory in Charlotte

Kevin Kisner is tied for the lead at 8-under 134 through two rounds of the PGA Championship at Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte, N.C.
Kevin Kisner is tied for the lead at 8-under 134 through two rounds of the PGA Championship at Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte, N.C. AP

Kevin Kisner has had a progressive pro golf career. Victories have come gradually, in due time.

The Aiken native and resident garnered three wins while playing mini and developmental tours for three years from 2007-09 after graduating from Georgia, won twice on the Web.com Tour in 2010 and 2013, and won in his fifth full season on the PGA Tour last year before adding a second victory in May at Colonial Country Club.

Kisner considers the next step in the progression to be a major championship, and he intends to take that step this weekend.

Kisner shot his second consecutive 4-under-par 67 Friday in the second round of the 99th PGA Championship at Quail Hollow Club and is tied with Hideki Matsuyama of Japan for the lead at 8-under 134.

“I’ve kind of progressed my whole career in that stage,” Kisner said. “I’ve 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. The next step is competing and winning major championships.”

Thunderstorms halted play for about 100 minutes Friday afternoon with half the field still on the golf course, and not all groups were able to complete 36 holes. The second round will resume at 7:30 a.m. and the third round will begin approximately 40 minutes following its conclusion, with players going off the first tee in threesomes.

Jason Day completed a 66 in near darkness and is alone in third at 6 under, while Louis Oosthuizen (67) and Francesco Molinari (64) are tied at 5 under with Chris Stroud, who has five holes still to play.

Kisner’s lead through the morning wave was five shots over Ricky Fowler at 3-under 139, but Matsuyama, ranked No. 2 in the world, carded a 64 in the afternoon.

Matsuyama birdied five of his final seven holes, which were interrupted by the delay. He changed putters last week, when he won the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational with a final-round 61, and his putting over the past two weeks has belied his poor putting statistics this year.

The greens here at Quail Hollow, as you know, are really fast. And there are a lot of putts that honestly, I'm not trying to make. I'm just trying to get it up near the hole, and a lot of them are going in.

Hideki Matsuyama

“The greens here at Quail Hollow, as you know, are really fast,” Matsuyama said. “And there are a lot of putts that honestly, I'm not trying to make. I'm just trying to get it up near the hole, and a lot of them are going in. I’ve been able to read the putts I think a lot better the past couple weeks.”

Matsuyama, 25, who has three victories this season to give him five in his PGA Tour career, has been a consistent performer in recent major championships.

He has six career top-10 finishes in majors, and he’s finished 11th, second and 14th in the first three majors this year. He shot 66 in the final round of the U.S. Open at Erin Hills that was the low round of the day to move into a tie for second.

“I guess the important thing is to give myself an opportunity to win,” Matsuyama said through his interpreter. “Keep knocking on the door and eventually it will open.”

Kisner, 33, has played in 11 majors with a top finish of 12th, and he tied for 18th in last year’s PGA Championship at Baltusrol. He has finished between 43rd and 58th in the first three majors this year.

“I’ve been upset with how I’ve played in the majors so far in my career,” Kisner said. “I feel like I have the game to compete in majors and I have tons of 30th to 40th, 50th-place finishes. That’s kind of been our goal for the year.

“We haven’t played well in them yet this year but every year you learn more about the majors and how to approach them. . . . This is probably the easiest one I’ve had to prep for because I know the golf course so well and I’ve been up here a lot. I feel real comfortable here and I really like the golf course.”

Kisner’s familiarity with Quail Hollow comes from his family. He spent the holidays of Thanksgiving and Christmas in Charlotte over a couple decades visiting relatives, and his brother-in-law’s father is a founding Quail Hollow member.

He has had minimal success in the Wells Fargo Championship held every year on the course, however. In five starts he has missed three cuts, tied for 38th and tied for sixth in 2014.

After carding six birdies and two bogeys Thursday, Kisner recorded three birdies and a bogey on his opening nine Friday and added an eagle with a 48-foot putt from off the green the rolled through about 30 feet of fairway before reaching the putting surface.

His other birdies came with a wedge to 11 feet on the par-5 10th, 160-yard approach to 6 feet on the par-4 12th and wedge to 5 feet on the par-5 15th.

I’m just excited about the opportunity. I’m really fired up about it the way I’m hitting the golf ball. I haven’t hit it this well this whole summer. I’ve had a lot of averages finishes. When I start hitting it the way I am now, I play well.

Kevin Kisner

“I’m just excited about the opportunity,” Kisner said. “I’m really fired up about it the way I’m hitting the golf ball. I haven’t hit it this well this whole summer. I’ve had a lot of averages finishes. When I start hitting it the way I am now, I play well.”

Kisner is not among the long hitters in golf and needs to hit fairways to contend at Quail Hollow, a par 71 that has played more than 7,450 yards in each of the first two rounds. He has hit 21 of 28 fairways leading to 30 of 36 greens in regulation.

“I’m hitting it in the fairway a lot, which is huge around here,” Kisner said. “I’m hitting the ball really nice and things are going my way, which obviously happens when you’re 8-under par through two rounds here. My good shots are working out, my bad shots are working out and I’m holing a lot of putts.”

Kisner said he has identified holes 7, 8, 14 and 15 – two par-5s and two short par-4s – as birdie holes, and he’s essentially playing for par on the rest of the course. He has played those holes 7 under in his two rounds.

“Any time I can get a wedge in my hand or a par 5 that I can reach, I feel like I have to make birdie,” Kisner said. “Those are the holes here that are allowing me to have that opportunity. If I play them 3-under in [each of] the next two days, I’ll take that.”

Kisner is one of the few players who haven’t struggled on Quail Hollow’s fast, firm, undulating greens, which have largely been responsible for the high scoring average.

“They are extremely firm. You’ve got to be in the fairway to be able to get it on the green,” Kisner said. “… I can’t imagine how much firmer they can get.”

Kisner believes he has gained some knowledge in his 11 previous major championships that he can take to the weekend, and it generally has to do with remaining aggressive with his game plan.

“I think a big step is just understanding that no lead is safe,” Kisner said. “I think that’s one of the biggest things people don’t understand is how good guys play coming down the stretch, and you have to continue to make birdies. You can’t just expect that somebody is going to hand you the tournament out here.”

Kisner is among the most decorated golfers to play at Georgia. He was the program’s first four-time All-American and a national team champion.

Kisner twice missed earning his PGA Tour card by a shot in the tour’s qualifying tournament and had to play on the Web.com Tour – first in 2009 and again in 2012. He realized about that time he needed to change his swing to play at the highest level and began working with instructor John Tillery.

“I never was a great ball-striker,” Kisner said. “I came out here and saw how well other guys hit it and I was like, ‘I’ve got no chance the way I’m hitting it.’ I knew if I ever got confident in my ball-striking, I could win, because I’m competitive and I’m pretty good around the greens.”

He started seeing results with his long game around 2013 and had a strong year in 2015 with three runner-up finishes, five top-fives and more than $3.5 million in earnings. The first PGA Tour win finally came last year.

Kisner is regarded as a fierce competitor, a reputation reinforced by a stern demeanor that exudes resolve bordering on anger. He reportedly does well in matches during Tuesday practice rounds against his fellow tour pros.

“I’ve always played other sports throughout my life, and I’ve never been the biggest guy, so I had to find a way to get things done,” said Kisner, who is listed at 5-10 and 165 pounds. “That’s why I play golf now because I was better than everybody else at golf. I like beating people and I like competing, and that’s kind of how I was raised.”

Kisner isn’t just from Aiken. He is Aiken. He has a core group of good ol’ boy buddies and enjoys hunting, fishing and shooting guns in the country. “They are a bunch of good dudes and I’m sure they will be up there having a good time this weekend,” Kisner said.

He’ll be having his own fun chasing his first major championship.

Alan Blondin: 843-626-0284, @alanblondin

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