CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Jordan Spieth has won at Pebble Beach, Hartford, and, of course, Royal Birkdale this season, but he fell one stroke shy of defending his title at the Dean & DeLuca Invitational. After Kevin Kisner donned the champion's tartan jacket, he was asked how he felt about beating Texas-born Spieth, the fan favorite in Fort Worth.
“He’s a great kid. I love him. But I love beating him, too,” Kisner said.
The 33-year-old Kisner is nothing if not a fierce competitor. Steve Stricker, the U.S. Presidents Cup captain, says Kisner's game reminds him of himself and added, “He's a bulldog.” How did Kisner earn such a reputation?
“I guess beating up on people on Tuesday,” said Kisner, referring to his routine of playing practice-round money games. “I like beating people and I like competing, and that’s kind of how I was raised.”
Through 36 holes of the 99th PGA Championship, Kisner is one of the men to beat after posting a pair of 67s for a 36-hole aggregate of 8-under 134 at Quail Hollow Club. He shares the lead with Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama, who shot 64 on Friday before play was suspended by darkness with 25 players yet to complete their rounds. The second round was scheduled to resume at 7:30 a.m. today, followed by the 36-hole cut, which was projected at 5-over 147 (scores: http://bit.ly/2upkvKk).
The victory at Colonial Country Club in May was just the second Tour title for Kisner, and it validated that his triumph at the 2015 RSM Classic after several runner-up finishes was no fluke. It also convinced Kisner that his game was good enough to win one of golf's biggest titles.
It’s a far cry from 2013 when Kisner was in the midst of another underwhelming season on the Web.com Tour and on the verge of retiring. At the behest of fellow Tour pro Scott Brown, he called instructor John Tillery for help.
“I never was a great ballstriker,” Kisner said. “I came out here and saw how well other guys hit it and I was like, I’ve got no chance, the way I’m hitting it.”
With Tillery, Kisner undertook a thorough reappraisal of his technique. The miss they had to fix was a block right of his target and a shot off the club’s heel, which resulted in a shank. Through hard work and good old-fashioned tenacity, Kisner developed a dependable swing, and finally won for the first time.
“I remember he said, ‘If you can help me a little bit, I can win,’ ” Tillery said. “He’s fearless. He’s one of those guys that wants the ball at the end of the game.”
Kisner's game sizzled earlier this year. He shot 60 at the Sony Open in Hawaii and finished tied for fourth, squandered a three-stroke lead on the back nine at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and shared second, and lost a playoff at the Zurich Classic of New Orleans after chipping in for eagle from 95 feet on the final hole of regulation. Kisner has made the cut at all four majors this season but settled for a bunch of middling finishes so far. He credited his improved ballstriking this week to working on his pivot and loading better on his right side to eliminate those pushed shots.
"It's nothing new," Tillery said. "He's just getting better and better at it."
As a native of Aiken, S.C., where he still calls home, Kisner dreamed of winning the Masters. As a teenager, he worked as a starter during Masters week at Aiken’s Woodside Plantation, asking afternoon players for their Masters tickets from that morning. He'd hustle to the par-3 16th hole, gambling with his pals on which players might hit it closest to the flag.
These days, Kisner loves nothing more than going off into the country where there is no cellphone service and spending the afternoon fishing, hunting and shooting guns with his friends.
"They don't ask me why I made bogey on the last hole that cost me 20 grand or anything like that,"Kisner said. "That's why I hang out with them."
He doesn't play a lot of golf in his spare time, but a month ago he did make a reconnaissance mission to Quail Hollow. Kisner knew the course well from regular visits to the Queen City. He has celebrated every Thanksgiving and Christmas here since childhood – his 93-year-old grandmother, whose favorite Tour pro is Phil Mickelson, not her grandson, Kisner said – still lives here by herself, and Kisner's brother-in-law's father is a founding member at Quail Hollow. It was raining the day he played the newly renovated layout, and the course played long. He thought, I don't know how I'm going to compete.
So far, Kisner is getting enough mid- and short irons in his hand and making birdies at the holes where he can be aggressive. He's a combined 7 under on Nos. 7, 8, 14 and 15.
“I’ve been in this position a ton,” Kisner said, “and one thing I always take away is you just got to keep making birdies and basically look up when you can't make any more.”
Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf World and The New York Times. He is the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @adamschupak