CHARLOTTE, N.C. —Despite making the cut in every major for two consecutive seasons, Kevin Kisner isn’t particularly thrilled with his average finish of 48th place.
The Aiken golfer, however, has big plans to raise the standard after he sleeps again on a share of the lead in the 99th PGA Championship at Quail Hollow.
“I’ve been upset with how I’ve played in the majors so far in my career,” Kisner said after his second consecutive 67 put him atop the field at 8-under par with red-hot Hideki Matsuyama before play was suspended Friday. “I feel like I have the game to compete in majors and tons of 30th-, 40th-, 50th-place finishes.”
Kisner is the first local golfer to hold a major lead after any round since Augusta native Larry Mize was the 36-hole leader at the 1994 Masters. He would prefer to match Mize’s achievement at the 1987 Masters by leading when the tournament ends on Sunday.
“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 – a lot of average finishes. When I start hitting it the way I am now, I play well.”
Kisner’s confidence from tee to green sent him right to the top of the PGA Championship leaderboard at Quail Hollow and hasn’t let go. He birdied his opening hole (the 10th) on Friday morning to break from his share of the first-round lead with Thorbjorn Olesen and by the time he holed a 50-foot eagle putt from off the par-5 seventh green he was five shots better than anyone else in his half of the draw.
He’s come a long way from his first major appearance three years ago, when he missed the cut in the 2014 U.S. Open a couple hours down the backroads of North Carolina at Pinehurst. Since missing the cut at both the British Open and PGA in 2015, Kisner is one of only three players to reach the weekend in all eight majors the last two years.
That’s not enough for him anymore. He’s more focused on the trophy than the cut line.
“If you think about the cut line you kind of always find yourself there on Friday afternoon,” he said. “When I first got out on tour I was always trying to make the cut and then you realize that finishing 50th is just as bad as missing the cut. So when you start thinking about competing, it helps. It’s a total mindset thing.”
Kisner sees his major evolution following the same trajectory as his entire professional career since turning pro 11 years ago.
“I’ve kind of processed my whole career in stages,” he 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.”
What has Kisner learned in his 11 previous major starts, 2015 playoff loss at the Players Championship and two career PGA Tour wins?
“That no lead is safe,” he 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.”
As if to illustrate his point, the afternoon wave Friday presented an ominous array of world-class stars whittling away at the four-shot lead Kisner held when he finished. World No. 3 Matsuyama continued his torrid play and climbed to 8-under with a 64. Former world No. 1 and 2015 PGA champion Jason Day charged into third place at 6-under through 17 holes before play was suspended. Former British Open champ Louis Oosthuizen surged into fifth with Francesco Molinari and Chris Stroud at 5-under while former Quail Hollow winner Rickie Fowler sits in seventh place five shots behind along with Justin Thomas and Paul Casey.
None of that threatens Kisner’s reputation for being doggedly competitive against all comers.
“He honestly believes he belongs with the best,” said Duane Bock, Kisner’s caddie.
“I like beating people and I like competing, and that’s kind of how I was raised,” Kisner said.
Bock started working with Kisner at Q-school in 2009 where they ended up paired at one point with veterans David Duval and Tim Herron.
“There was no back down at all,” Bock said. “That’s who he is. He doesn’t feel inferior to anybody.”
Certainly not in Charlotte, where Kisner has spent enough Thanksgivings and Christmases with family over his lifetime to consider it a second home. He’s had his eye on this major at Quail Hollow, where the grasses and terrain are like comfort food for his game. While some pros have been spooked by the speed and slope on the new Bermuda greens, Kisner keeps pouring in putts without fear.
“I’ve made a ton of great putts for par today, big momentum putts, eight to 10 feet,” he said. “I feel really comfortable on the reads on the greens and my speed’s been great.”
It’s had to be since the rain has softened the fairways to the point where conventional wisdom assumed a long, high-ball hitter would dominate over relatively short, low-trajectory guys like Kisner. Even he assumed as much.
“I came up a month ago and played, and it was raining and wet, and I said, ‘Man, this place is going to be so long, I don’t know how we are going to compete,’” he said. “But it’s been drying out and my tee balls are getting some roll and I’m hitting a lot less irons into the greens than I expected. If I can get a 6- or 7-iron in my hand, I like my chances around here.”
Friday afternoon’s downpours weren’t what Kisner wanted, but teeing off last on Saturday will give him the chance to know exactly where he stands as the field chases him.
He’s not running scared.
“More anxious than nervous,” he said. “If we have to tee off at 2 o’clock, I’ll be bored to death by then, ready to go play. I’m sure there will be nerves in there but that’s what we play for and that’s what we practice for.”