CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Remember when Nick Faldo made 18 pars during the final round to win the 1987 Open Championship?
Yeah, most people don’t; but for those astute historians that do recall that most mundane of majors 30 years ago the 99th PGA Championship is starting to feel a little bit like that – a sweaty, sweltering grind that left the field pretty much in the same position they were in when they started the day.
Playing the role of Faldo at Quail Hollow is Kevin Kisner, a bulldog of a player and a former Georgia Bulldog who didn’t manage 18 pars on Day 3 but his position at the end of the round had remained virtually unchanged.
Collectively, the top five players on the leaderboard were 1 over par on a day that wasn’t exactly separation Saturday, with Kisner maintaining his spot atop the field with a 1-over 72 for a one-stroke lead over Chris Stroud and Hideki Matsuyama.
In his prime, Sir Nick would have fit in perfectly at this Quail Hollow, all 7,600 yards of willowy rough and grainy deception. He also would have appreciated Kisner’s moxie.
The two-time PGA Tour winner went 25 holes around Quail Hollow without a bogey until his misstep at the 12th after wildly missing a fairway, which is itself wild considering Kisner’s consistency off the tee this week.
Two birdies at Nos. 14 and 15 padded his lead, which he never lost, before he found the water with his approach on the 16th hole for a double bogey-6. A bogey at the last set the stage for what promises to be survival Sunday.
This new and improved Quail Hollow will do that, even to the world’s best.
Defense may win championships in team sports, but when Tour pros are relegated to putting for pars it makes for something less than awe-inspiring golf.
Unless Sunday brings a dramatic weather change, like the one that led to Friday’s scoring matinee, or the PGA of America suddenly goes inexplicably soft, it will likely be more of the same on Sunday.
“You have to play away from the hole on so many shots throughout the day, and then all of a sudden they give you a couple holes in a row on each side that you've got to attack,” said Kisner, whose stock in trade this week has been his driving (he’s fourth in the field in fairways hit) and greens in regulation (first in the field). “You've got to be able to take 30 feet and take your medicine. I think that's one of the biggest things out there.”
All you need to know about the PGA Quail Hollow is that the layout’s 18th and first holes are the first and second toughest frames this week, respectively. Those two holes would also rank as the third and fifth toughest on Tour this season. Consider it bookend round busters.
Kisner, who likes to “wheel” putts in on the high side with dying speed, relishes the role of dark horse, tackling Quail Hollow the way a chess master would go after Bobby Fischer, methodically with a plan and a purpose.
He estimated in his practice rounds there were four birdie holes each round, Nos. 7, 8, 14 and 15, while the other 14 required tentative precision, a drive that finds a fairway even if that leaves a lengthy approach. He’s hit a lot of 6-iron approach shots this week. He loves his 6-iron.
“Think his 6-iron has got a hole in it ... right in the sweet spot,” joked Kisner’s swing coach John Tillery.
The saving grace may be that unlike Muirfield in ’87 for Faldo, there are birdies to be had at Quail Hollow, which has been softened to a less-demanding version of its new Bermuda grass self by two days of on-again, off-again downpours.
Graham DeLaet cracked the code, however temporarily, when he nearly aced the 13th and 14th (a par 4) holes, added an eagle at the 15th and finished his run with a birdie at the 16th to go 6 under in four holes.
“It was difficult. It's a really, really, really challenging test out there, especially with the greens being as firm as they are. It's just so hard to get birdie looks,” said the guy whose 68 moved him into a tie for seventh.
It’s also a bit of a buzz kill following the last two majors where low scoring has been the rule rather than the exception.
Although there is a segment of the golf public that savors the old Grand Slam grind, where par is a good score and Tour professionals regularly look foolish, those types of slugfests don’t necessarily bring out the best in the brightest, as evidenced by a leaderboard that has exactly one top-10 player in the world ranking (Matsuyama) within six strokes of the lead.
“The PGA Championship I think is going to be the toughest for me,” said Jordan Spieth, who played his way out of the tournament, not to mention a chance to become the youngest player to win the career Grand Slam, with a third-round 71. “If we look historically back on my career, I think I will play this tournament worse than the other three majors just in the way that it's set up.”
Now whether Spieth was talking about this particular PGA or all of them will only be decided by time, but there was no denying that the relative difficulty of Quail Hollow is not a perfect fit for the game’s current marquee.
“The way they set the golf course up this week, it's made you play cautious golf. You have to be happy with 25, 30 feet,” reasoned Rory McIlroy, who also did little to help his title chances with a 73 on his way to a tie for 47th. “Kevin Kisner led [he’s actually fourth in the field] in proximity to the hole with 36 feet. That is sort of the way of this golf course.”
That the tournament will in all likelihood be decided on the layout’s Green Mile, Nos. 16, 17 and 18, is only fitting, as foreshadowed by Saturday’s finale for the anchor threesome which played that stretch in a combined 7 over par that included Jason Day’s quadruple bogey-8 at the 18th hole.
This Quail Hollow is not for the timid, nor does it inspire the kind of scoring frenzy fans cheered at the U.S. Open or Open Championship. This PGA is relentless and may well be won by the player who, like Faldo, can make 18 pars and survive.