Kisner fights instinct, sticks to game plan at PGA

RSS

Updated, 7:45 p.m. ET

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Kevin Kisner is a statistical anomaly, a ShotLink unicorn who for two rounds has defied all that we thought we knew about the new and improved Quail Hollow Club.

At 5-foot-10, 165 pounds he’s done what the hard swinging likes of Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson and Bubba Watson could not – post consecutive rounds in the 60s and move into a share of the lead with Hideki Matsuyama at the PGA Championship.

The PGA Quail Hollow was supposed to be a bomber’s utopia where the game’s biggest and brightest would have an overwhelming advantage.

Kisner had other plans.

The 127th-longest driver on the PGA Tour, that’s out of 202 players for those keeping track, made the two-hour drive from his home in South Carolina to Quail Hollow last month for a scouting trip and came away with a common impression.

“It was raining and wet, and I said, ‘Man, this place is going to be so long; I don't know how they are going to compete,’” he said on Friday following his second-consecutive 67.

Turns out there is a plan for Kisner to play the sprawling North Carolina gem; it just took a little research and a monsoon of patience – which has not always been among the 33-year-old’s strengths.


PGA Championship: Scores | Live blog: Day 2 | Full coverage


Because of Quail Hollow’s length – roughly 7,600 yards the first two days – and a new set of Bermuda grass greens that McIlroy opined automatically made the layout at least two strokes more difficult than when it usually hosts the Wells Fargo Championship in May, Kisner figured he had four legitimate birdie holes – Nos. 7, 8, 14 and 15.

“Those are my holes to score well. If I play them 3 under in the next two days, take that,” he said with a dash of southern simplicity.

On Thursday he added birdies at Nos. 6 and 18, to take a share of the Day 1 lead; and on Friday he made an eagle at the par-5 seventh.

But lack of length is not what makes Kisner the ultimate statistical outlier this week; although it’s worth pointing out he’s had five drives of 300 yards or more thus far.

Where the son of Aiken, S.C., broke the mold is what he’s done with an iron (normally of the mid- to long-iron variety) in his hand. Kisner leads the field in greens in regulation, going 30-for-36 through two rounds, despite having an average approach shot of 186 yards.

“It speaks to how well he’s hitting it,” figured Kisner’s swing coach, John Tillery.

At least part of that proficiency is a credit to Kisner’s driving accuracy – 21 of 28 fairways hit – but mostly it’s been his ability to temper an admittedly aggressive instinct.

“We talked about it and there are holes where he needs to aim away from the flag when he’s got a 6-iron in his hand,” Tillery said. “It used to just drive him crazy to do that, but it’s been a big attitude change at the majors.”

There will be those who will wonder if Kisner has the staying power to finish off a major, even after such a strong start. In 11 previous major appearances his best finish is a tie for 18th at the 2016 PGA, a run of events that includes a tie for 58th earlier this year at the U.S. Open.

But it was at Erin Hills where the seeds of his new subtle approach took hold. It was following a third-round 76 that Tillery and Kisner’s caddie, Duane “Dewey” Bock, addressed what could best be described as competitive overzealousness.

“We talked about his mind set, he was in good form but wasn’t playing well,” Tillery said. “If anything he tends to be too aggressive, so a course like [Quail Hollow] forces him to dial it back.”

For Kisner, that means picking your birdie holes and avoiding the kind of miscues that separate majors from your run-of-the-mill events, even if that means aiming 30 feet away from the hole.

There’s also something to be said for Kisner’s ability at overcoming the obvious at Quail Hollow. This is where bombers come to play, nearly 4 and ½ miles of winding rough and rugged edges, particularly after a wet summer.

Kisner could have lamented his fate, grumbled about course set up and 524-yard par 4s, but instead he devised a plan and for two days has executed that blueprint to perfection.

“In years past, he probably would have been that way and we wouldn’t be in the spot we’re in,” Tillery said. “He’s matured a ton.”

Call it maturity, call it a major mentality, for Kisner he knows this is the way you win major championships and after a lifetime of professional trial and error he’s ready to take that next step.

“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 tons of 30th- to 40th-, 50th-place finishes,” he 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.”

After two days we’ve all learned, thanks to Kisner’s performance, that what we thought we knew about statistics can be wildly misleading.