Hideki Matsuyama

PGA Championship: Hideki Matsuyama storms to the top of the leaderboard at Quail Hollow

CHARLOTTE — The Kevin Kisner ledes were locked and loaded in the pressroom at Quail Hollow early Friday evening. On Day 2 of what to that point had been a sleepy PGA Championship, the down-home Aiken, S.C., native whose idea of a perfect day includes a rod, a rifle and cooler full of tall boys, was in pole position at eight under par. It wasn’t a matter of if Kiz would have the 36-hole lead but by how many. 

And then along came Hideki Matsuyama. 

And a rainstorm. 

And a golf course that morphed from beastly to benign.

And players rushing shots in the half-dark in hopes of completing their rounds and avoiding an early Saturday-morning wake-up call. 

And, well…here’s where we are:

Kisner still holds the halftime lead but he has some company atop the ‘board in the form of the 25-year-old Matsuyama, who proved once again Friday — as he did at Firestone a week ago — that when he gets rolling there is, at this moment, no more explosive player in golf. Not Rory, not Jordan, not Long Jon Rahm. Matsuyama, who has done just about everything in this game but win a major, went out in 33 and home in 31 thanks to a blistering four-under run from 12-15 in which three of his four birdie attempts were from within seven feet. His seven-under 64 tied the low round of the tournament. 

Matsuyama, who’s rarely inclined to praise his own game, insisted he didn’t hit the ball well Friday and was saved by his putter. His best shot? The tee shot he stuffed to six feet at the par-3 17th. His worst? “There was too many,” Matsuyama said — again, after a 64. “I can’t count them all.”

Hideki Matsuyama plays his third shot on the 16th hole during the second round of the 2017 PGA Championship.

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You may have seen Matsuyama making a run this week, but you did not see Kisner coming (oh, come on, you didn’t). The sharpies in Las Vegas didn’t, either. They pegged Kiz at 80-1, wayyyy down the betting sheet with the likes of Xander Schaufelle. But perhaps they should have seen him coming. 

No, Kisner’s competitive record at Quail isn’t exactly sterling (three MCs in five starts), but the place is a second home. “Got a lot of ties to Quail Hollow,” he said after posting a second-consecutive 67 in what was supposed to be The Rory and Jordan Show. “Brother-in-law’s father is a founding member here. He’s still a member here.” 

Kisner knows his way around town, too. His 93-year-old grandmother lives in the area, and he’s spent every Thanksgiving and Christmas in Charlotte “from childhood to marriage.” Before this week, Kiz last visited Quail a month ago when he motored up from Aiken to check out the new-look layout. “It was raining and wet, and I said, man, this place is going to be so long.” But he has faced a far different test so far this week — firm, fiery, even crusty in spots, which has played to Kisner’s strengths: his short irons and putting. “If I can get a 6- or 7-iron in my hand,” Kisner noted, “I like my chances around here.”

Plenty of other players rightfully like their chances, too. Two back of Kisner and Matsuyama is Jason Day, who has been battling a slew of injuries and personal issues since his last win at the 2016 Players Championship. Francesco Molinari, who matched Matsuyama’s 64, is in a pack of three players at five under. Jordan Spieth, with visions of the career grand slam dancing in his head, remained stuck in first gear. After a four-bogey 72 in the first round, he played another uneven round Friday, pairing three bogeys with just one birdie on his way to a 73. Spieth, who’s 11 back at three over par (two within the cut line), was asked if he had a number in mind over the weekend. “Probably 54 would be nice,” he said. 
 
No one has played as steadily as Kisner, who through two rounds on the fire-breathing layout has hit 83% of his greens and devoured the three par-5s, playing them in six under par thanks in part to a hole-out eagle Friday on the 546-yard 7th. “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,” he said. “Those are the holes here that are allowing me to have that opportunity.”   

You need a game plan to play Quail Hollow, or at least to play it well. Avoid the ball-gobbling, hosel-choking Bermuda rough, stay below the hole, and pick your moments to strike. Just about every player has articulated some variation of that thinking after coming off the course this week. “If I can go hit some more fairways, that’s the big thing,” said Rickie Fowler, who is five back after a one-under 70 on Friday. At least you have a chance of hitting in a good spot on the green. Hitting it in the rough, you don’t.”

Fowler’s high-wattage grouping — he played with McIlroy and Rahm in the first two rounds — didn’t follow the script Friday. The fiery Rahm shot a 75 complete with a couple of his trademark club slams, while McIlroy had his own struggles with an uncooperative driver. Playing the back nine first, he cruised through his first 11 holes in one under but then came bogeys on 2, 3, 5 and 6. “That’s just down to being out of position off the tee and not being able to get it very close with my second shot,” he said. 

His start could have been worse if not for a bit of Copperfieldian magic on the 10th where McIlroy saved par by playing a recovery shot with a 6-iron from 100 yards right of the green up a cart path and through a chute of trees (where was the windmill?). “I just said, ‘O.K., I’ll bounce it up the cart path and see where this goes,” he said.

After six top-10s and two wins on this course, McIlroy was a fashionable pick this week. Now he’s 10 strokes back. “Take [Kisner] out of the equation,” McIlroy said, grasping for hope, “I feel like I’m still right there in the tournament.” 

Phil Mickelson’s not. By the time you read this, he’ll likely be at 35,000 feet, halfway home to Rancho Sante Fe. Mickelson followed an alarming 79 with a 74 Friday to miss his first cut in a PGA Championship since Bill Clinton’s first term. In explaining his struggles to the press Mickelson sounded a lot like a golfer who might be missing the services of a certain caddie. “I’m not really controlling my thought process, where I want the ball to go,” Mickelson said. “I’m not real focused out there.”

Mickelson has now missed the cut in four of his last seven major starts. 

It’s new day on Tour with new names vying for the game’s biggest titles, and it’s quite possible we’ll get yet another first-time major winner come Sunday. “I’m not really sure,” Matsuyama said when asked what it would mean to win Japan’s first major title. “That’s a difficult question, one that’s hard to think about, what effect that would have on my life, my family’s life. I try to imagine, but we still have a lot of golf to play.”

And Kisner? His life would change too, no doubt, though it’s hard to imagine a major title changing him. “I love to just go home and hang out with my buddies in the country,” he said when asked about how he gets away from the stresses of the Tour. “Go out where there’s no cell phone service and spend the afternoon. Love to fish, love to shoot guns, love to hunt, just get away from it. I love my core group of friends at home that they don’t ask me why I made bogey on the last hole that cost me 20 grand or anything like that.”

On Sunday, he may face a putt that’s worth a lot more than that.