CHARLOTTE, N.C. – For much of the afternoon, it appeared that Kevin Kisner would carry a healthy cushion into the weekend at the PGA Championship as he looks to secure his first major title.
But then came the rain, transforming Quail Hollow Club from a burly obstacle course into a supple dart board. The bogeys that had dominated the scoreboard quickly turned into birdies, and suddenly Kisner has plenty of company near the top of the standings with the second round still in progress.
In other words, a major championship has finally broken out at the year’s final major.
Three of the world’s top 10 players will wake up Saturday in position to challenge for the Wanamaker Trophy. Chief among them is world No. 3 Hideki Matsuyama, fresh off his five-shot romp at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, who managed to draw even with Kisner by nightfall.
Matsuyama’s claim to the cringe-inducing title of best player without a major has always included a hiccup because he has yet to truly challenge for a title coming down the stretch. His runner-up this year at Erin Hills still saw him finish four shots behind Brooks Koepka, and he hasn’t felt the pressure of hitting a critical shot with a major trophy hanging in the balance.
But the Japanese phenom is in the midst of perhaps the best stretch of his career, having already won three times this season and coming off a course record-tying 61 at Firestone. A 103-minute weather delay Friday did little to stunt his momentum, as Matsuyama closed out a bogey-free 64 that seemed to require little effort and equaled the low round of the week.
Now tied with Kisner at 8 under, this undoubtedly represents his best chance for major glory that would provide a watershed moment for his homeland.
“I’m probably not playing as I did at the end of last year. However, I’m riding the momentum from the round that I had on Sunday,” Matsuyama said through a translator. “Hopefully I can keep that going for 36 more holes.”
But Matsuyama is not the only big name who cut into Kisner’s advantage in the waning daylight. Jason Day described his year to date earlier this week as “very, very poor,” and the Aussie is now improbably 15 months removed from his most recent win. But Day seems to save his best stuff for this event, having won two years ago at Whistling Straits and second last year in defense of his title.
Day was well off the radar before coming to life with an eagle on the par-5 seventh hole, which sparked a seven-hole stretch during which he was 6 under. In the span of a few minutes, Day went from also-ran to a title contender within two shots of the lead, one who appears to have once again discovered the confident stride that helped him start the year as the top-ranked player in the world.
“It’s been slowly building,” Day said. “It was nice to be able to drive the way I did today, and set myself up with the opportunities and being able to capitalize on those opportunities felt even better. Because they were the two things that were missing pretty much the whole year is my driving and my putting, and being able to combine that today just felt like the old days, which is only last year.”
Rickie Fowler is contending at a major for the third time this year, and having taken a tactical approach over the first 36 holes he sits five shots off the pace at 3 under. So, too, does Justin Thomas, who bounced back from six weeks of middling play with a second-round 66 under the watchful eye of his father, Mike, who still works as a PGA professional.
And if you needed any more proof that a major is officially up for grabs, Louis Oosthuizen has even come out of hiding and trails by only three.
The themes that started the week – Jordan Spieth’s Slam ambitions and Rory McIlroy’s effort to rekindle an affinity with Quail Hollow – have been shoved to the back burner.
But in their stead, a tantalizing collection of storylines have converged. The PGA Championship has produced a steady supply of weekend drama dating back to the twilight finish three years ago at Valhalla, and the 99th edition should be no exception.
Kisner could very well still leave Charlotte with the trophy, especially given his level of comfort through two rounds on a difficult track. But this much is clear: it won’t be as easy of a waltz to the finish line as it once appeared.