CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Quail Hollow has a history for rewarding golf’s biggest hitters, but the 165-pound player who’s been atop the leaderboard all week at the PGA Championship is accustomed to punching above his weight class.
Kevin Kisner doesn’t impress fans with a silky swing that produces jaw-dropping drives, but he has the strong will and tenacity that we love to see from our undersized athletes. It’s the reason movies like “Rudy” get made.
“The TOUR, the way it’s going, everybody is huge and driving it 350 yards,” Kisner said. “Guys like (me) are less and less. If you don’t have that attitude, you’re going to get run over out here.”
Kisner has displayed a strong will and determination to make it this far, and those characteristics will undoubtedly come in handy now that he holds a one-shot lead entering the final round of a major championship.
This is the player who just four years ago was pondering retirement because he couldn’t keep his ball on the planet. He endured three playoff losses before earning his first PGA TOUR win, at the 2015 RSM Classic and now he’s on the card at another big fight.
Kisner will have little room for error Sunday, and not just because of his slim advantage. Quail Hollow’s uppercut is lethal to a lightweight, the course’s thick rough and firm greens even more penal for a shorter hitter.
“I’m in a dogfight tomorrow and I have to be prepared for that,” said Kisner, who ranks ninth in the FedExCup.
He earned his second PGA TOUR win earlier this season at the DEAN & DELUCA Invitational.
Kisner had the opportunity to take a larger lead into the final round until he was undone by Quail Hollow’s demanding finishing stretch, known as the Green Mile. He played the final three holes in 3 over to shoot 1-over 72 on Saturday.
“I had a chance to run away from guys and take people out of the tournament that were four or five, six back, and I didn’t do it,” Kisner said.
At 7-under 206, he sits one shot ahead of two players who both hoisted trophies of their own last Sunday. One is Chris Stroud, a 35-year-old who earned his long-awaited first win last week at the Barracuda Championship.
The other may be the hottest player on the planet, Hideki Matsuyama. The FedExCup leader is coming off a Sunday 61 at the World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational. It was his third win of the season.
Justin Thomas and Louis Oosthuizen are another shot back. Thomas is another three-time winner this season, while Oosthuizen is the only major champion among the top 15 on the leaderboard. That experience may come in handy Sunday, because Quail Hollow is playing like an old-fashioned major layout, with thick rough and firm, fast greens. One bad swing can lead to bogey … or worse.
“It’s the type of golf course you don’t have to go out and make birdies. You just need to keep everything together,” Oosthuizen said.
The end of Saturday’s round showed how penal the place can be. It had been a rather quiet day as players cautiously navigated their way around this Charlotte track, contentedly collecting pars.
Kisner hit his approach shot into the water at No. 16, and was one fortunate bridge bounce away from doing the same on the final hole. He played his final three holes in 3 over to drastically change the complexion of Sunday’s final round.
This is the fifth time that Kisner has held a 54-hole lead. He has converted one of the previous four into a victory (2015 RSM Classic).
Because of his lack of length, Kisner has limited opportunities to make birdies at Quail Hollow. When he first visited the course a few weeks ago, he knew there were only a handful of holes he could be aggressive on: the course’s three par-5s (Nos. 7, 10 and 15) and two short par-4s, the 346-yard eighth hole and drivable 14th.
He’s executed his gameplan perfectly. He’s 11 under par on those holes this week, making nine birdies and an eagle. He’s 4 over on the rest of the golf course, making just three birdies on the remainder of Quail Hollow’s holes.
“It’s a difficult mind-set where you’re … holding on, holding on, and then you’re like, ‘Oh, I’ve got to birdie, I’ve got to birdie,” Kisner said. “You’ve got to be ready to handle that situation and the change, and you’ve got to be able to take 30 feet (for birdie) and take your medicine. I think that’s one of the biggest things out there.”
Kisner, a lifetime resident of the South, fares well on Bermudagrass greens, but Quail Hollow’s length would seemingly disqualify a player who ranks 127th on the PGA TOUR in driving distance (288.3 yards).
“When we came up here a few weeks ago, we realized that we had to be spot-on with our ball-striking,” Scott Brown said. “He’s been ball-striking it to death.”
Despite having longer clubs into the greens than a majority of the field, Kisner leads in greens in regulation. He’s missed just 12 greens over three rounds.
“He’s always a good iron player. He lives and dies by the putter,” Brown said.
He’s succeeded with those clubs thus far this week. He’s fourth in Strokes Gained: Putting (+2.011 strokes per round) and fourth in driving accuracy, hitting 31 of 42 fairways. Quail Hollow’s new Bermudagrass rough is thicker than players are accustomed to at the Wells Fargo Championship, and especially penal considering the course’s firm greens.
“The rough’s brutal. … If I can just keep hitting fairways, I’m going to like my chances,” Kisner said.
But if he makes one mistake, the brute called Quail Hollow is waiting to knock him out.