CHARLOTTE — Kevin Kisner’s journey to the top of the leaderboard at the 99th PGA Championship at Quail Hollow didn’t start with Thursday’s first round. It took root years ago on the back roads of professional golf.
Kisner, 33, spent lean years pinching pennies, sleeping in second-rate hotels and playing middle-of-nowhere golf courses chasing his dream of playing on the PGA Tour. He teed it up on mini-tours, Hooters Tour, Tar Heel Tour, Nationwide Tour and Web.com Tour, all the while pounding balls on the practice range, chipping and putting well into the night and never losing hope.
“I wouldn’t be here without those times,” Kisner said Friday after shooting his second 4-under-par 67 to move to 8 under par through 36 holes of the last major of the season. “That made me who I am. It forced me to never give up, to work as hard as I can. When you had a 20-footer you had to make to make the cut and earn some money, you bear down. You face enough of those situations, and you get through them, that does a world of good.”
Kisner won three times on the mini-tours, two more times on what is now called the Web.com Tour. After losing in three playoffs in 2015, he won his first PGA Tour title at the RSM Classic that year. He won his second Tour title this year at the Dean & DeLuca Invitational at Colonial. He’s pocketed $12.4 million on Tour. Yet he still works as hard now as he did back then.
“Those years made him tougher,” said Duane Bock, who has caddied for Kisner since 2009. When things got tough, Bock had to take side jobs to make ends meet, sweeping floors and delivering doors among them. Even when Kisner told Bock he should look for another bag, Bock stuck with him. He saw something in Kisner, he saw all the potential, he saw all the fight.
“We were standing on the range at the British Open last month and he looked at (swing coach John Tillery) and said, ‘I’m tired of finishing 40th. We’ve been finishing 40th for the past month,’” Bock said. “He wants to be in contention and he understands he has to work at it. He understands he has to continue to work. His road to get here helped him. There is no sitting back for him.”
There is no fear in him, either. When he took to Quail Hollow for the first time this week, he knew he was in for a tough ride. Quail Hollow is a brute, a 7,600-yard track rimmed by penalizing rough and featuring 18 extremely firm greens. While Kisner loves putting on the Bermuda greens, he doesn’t exactly relish hitting into them. For instance, his 4-iron into the 9th green in the second round bounced 40 paces from its pitch mark.
Bombers have a big advantage here. And Kisner is not a bomber.
So he knew he had to come up with a plan to survive the course. So he, Tillery and Bock came up with a blueprint, attack the four easiest holes — the par-5 seventh, the par-4 eighth, the par-4 14th and the par-5 15th — and play for par on the others. And stay away from double bogeys.
It’s worked just fine the first two rounds and there’s no indication it won’t work the last two. He’s made just three bogeys, no doubles, and on the four holes he has to attack, he’s made five birdies and eagled No. 7 on Friday.
While the tough track might get him from time to time, pressure won’t.
“He doesn’t get nervous when he’s playing well. He told me he gets nervous when he’s not playing well and is trying to make the cut,” Bock said. “Right now he’s firing on all cylinders and he feels great about his swing.
“He’s excited where he is. I don’t see any scared putts, any scared swings.”
His mind is in a good spot, too, his focus spot on. In 11 previous major championships, his best finish was a tie for 12th in the 2015 U.S. Open. He’s had six finishes of 37th or worse. He was intent to change his ways in majors.
“I've been upset with how I've played in the majors so far in my career. I feel like I have the game to compete in majors and I have tons of 30th to 40th, 50th-place finishes,” Kisner said. “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. … 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. So I'm looking forward to the weekend and having an opportunity to keep making birdies and playing well.”
Steve DiMeglio, USA Today