He was the basketball player who wasn’t tall enough, the football player who got crushed. So Kevin Kisner, a feisty sort who enjoyed the camaraderie and competition of team sports, took the advice of a high school coach who told him, “I think you ought to stick to golf.”
For a while, lacking confidence in his ball-striking — the very essence of the game — it seemed he was stuck with golf. “I was like, ‘I got no chance the way I’m hitting it,’” Kisner said of his early days as a pro in the sport’s minor leagues.
He has a chance now, a chance to win a major, the PGA Championship. With a bit of arrogance and a great deal of determination, and the help of teaching pro John Tillery, Kisner rebuilt his swing. “It was so bad,” Kisner said, “I was shanking in the middle of the fairway.”
Now it’s so good, that along with a short game and putting skill Kisner always possessed, he’s tied for the lead with red-hot Hideki Matsuyama in the PGA, which Friday despite a 1-hour 43-minute weather suspension almost made it through the second round.
Kisner, done early, long before play was halted because of rain and then darkness, shot a second consecutive four-under-par 67 at Quail Hollow. Matsuyama, winner of last weekend’s Bridgestone Invitational, roared in late with a 64. Both are at eight-under 134.
Third at six-under 136 after a 66 is Jason Day, the 2015 PGA winner and 2016 runner-up, while Francesco Molinari and Louis Oosthuizen are at five-under 137. Chris Stroud is five under with five holes to play Saturday. Rickie Fowler, Justin Thomas and Paul Casey are in at three-under 139.
The guys around whom the pre-tournament stories were constructed — Jordan Spieth, trying to win a career Grand Slam? Brooks Koepka, after stomping the field in the U.S.Open? Sergio Garcia, visiting the world in his Masters champion green jacket? — well . . .
Spieth had a 73 after an opening 72 and is at three-over 145, 11 behind. Koepka also shot 73 and is at one-under 141. Garcia had a 75, and his eight-over 150 won’t even keep him around for weekend play.
Top-ranked Dustin Johnson and pre-tournament favorite Rory McIlroy are at two over.
The way he has played this summer, second in the U.S. Open to Koepka; 14th in the British and a few days ago closing with a 61 to take the Bridgestone, it very well could be Matsuyama’s first major.
Then again, Quail Hollow is sort of a home course for Kisner. Even though he lives in Aiken, S.C., some two hours away, Kisner frequently comes to the club of which a brother-in-law was a founding member.
He stopped by a month ago to check out the renovations, which turned Quail Hollow from a regular Tour course into a major venue. Then again, local knowledge might be of no use the way Matsuyama has performed.
“I am playing well,” Matsuyama agreed. He has won three times since last October to move up to third in the world rankings. “But whether it’s the best I’ve played in my career, I’m not sure.”
That’s irrelevant. He just has to be playing the best this weekend to win a major for the first time.
“I’m not sure,” he said again when asked what it would mean. “That’s a difficult question, hard to think about. I try to imagine, but we have a lot of golf left.”
Kisner, 33, has been thinking about a major since he turned pro.
“I’m just excited about the opportunity,” he said. “I’ve been upset with how I’ve played the majors in my career. I feel like I have the game to compete in the majors and tons of 30th-, 40th- and 50th-place finishes. I feel real comfortable here, and I know the course.”