CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The leaderboard was the bearer of bad news. By the time Jordan Spieth arrived at the first tee Friday afternoon for his 1:35 starting time in the 99th PGA Championship, Kevin Kisner had polished off a second straight 67 at Quail Hollow Club and posted at 8 under par.
That meant Spieth was – yikes! – nine strokes off the lead before he’d even hit a shot. Just because Tour players are used to that kind of thing on a weekly basis doesn’t mean they’re immune.
Spieth said last week that the career Grand Slam can wait, he felt no sense of urgency, that at 24 years of age, he’ll have plenty of chances to snag a PGA Championship and join the select group of legends who have won all four majors.
That’s good because it figures to be 12 more months until his next attempt at making Grand Slam history. Spieth got off to a slow start in Thursday’s opening round, then it got worse Friday.
We don’t know who’s going to win the Wanamaker Trophy. Hideki Matsuyama, who fired a sparkling 64, and Kisner are two shots ahead of Jason Day. That’s a fearsome trio for anyone else to catch. But we have a pretty good idea which players aren’t going to win this PGA, and that group includes Spieth after he slipped back with a 73. At 11 strokes back, Spieth needs some kind of miracle rally. That’s his specialty, come to think of it, but he is chasing more than one elite player, and that makes his odds unrealistic.
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 is projected at 5-over 147 (scores: http://bit.ly/2upkvKk).
Quail Hollow’s length and fierce rough never figured to be a good fit for Spieth, anyway.
“I kind of accept the fact that I’m essentially out of this tournament pending some crazy stuff the next couple of days,” Spieth said. “I’m sure going to give it a try.”
Asked if he had a number in mind, he quipped, “Probably 54 would be nice. I don’t know; as low as I can go. I’ll fire at stuff on the weekend. I’ve got nothing to lose.”
History will have to wait. The career Grand Slam chase may have ended at the 10th hole. Spieth went birdie-free on the first nine, playing it 1 over par thanks to a bogey at the third hole. The 10th is a par 5 that is one of Quail Hollow’s easiest holes. Sergio Garcia and Brooks Koepka, paired with Spieth, made birdies. But Spieth got in jail and couldn’t get out.
He hit a familiar tee shot that caused him to shout, “Fore right!” He got a drop from a cart path and into the pine straw, but his low punchout attempt veered left, went across the fairway and into the pine straw beyond the left rough – way too aggressive.
He compounded his mistake with another. Instead of playing a low punch shot up around the green, maybe into a greenside bunker where he could get up and down for par, Spieth used a sand wedge and tried to thread a higher shot through a window between the limbs. The ball clipped a small branch and didn’t advance much, ending up farther left and still in the trees. It took two more shots to get on the green, and Spieth still holed a 6-footer for bogey that dropped him 11 shots off the lead. A storm delay gave Spieth a break, but despite softer greens that led to birdies for others, especially Matsuyama, Spieth couldn’t make up any ground.
Even those players nearer the lead can’t be overly optimistic. Matsuyama, coming off a closing 61 to win last week at Firestone, torched Quail Hollow’s mighty back nine after the rain. He birdied five out of six holes starting at the 12th, and missed a good birdie look at the mean 18th. The Japanese star is suddenly an intimidating name on the leaderboard.
“I haven’t won a major yet,” Matsuyama said through an interpreter. “This is a new experience for me, but I’m really looking to it.”
Kisner is a frequent Charlotte-area visitor, has played Quail Hollow numerous times, is comfortable on its greens and is swinging as well as he ever has. Day, who won the PGA with a record 20-under total two years ago, suddenly appears to be back in form, too. If someone is going to pass this threesome to win, he is going to have to play some stellar golf.
Spieth, meanwhile, was not alone among notable players whose chances of winning are now less than North Korea’s chances of getting a rocket anywhere near Guam.
Phil Mickelson missed the cut badly, following his opening 79 with a 74, and offered a curious explanation: “I’m just losing focus on every shot.”
Pre-tournament favorite Rory McIlroy didn’t make a move, either. He shot a second straight 1-over 72 and stands 10 shots behind Kisner and Matsuyama. He needs a big weekend, just like Spieth.
“A low round here used to be a 61 or a 62,” McIlroy said. “A low round now is a 66 or a 67, and you're playing your ass off to get that. I'd say if I shoot two 67s over the weekend, I'm going to have a really good chance.”
Garcia, the Masters champion, missed the cut, but Wisconsin native Steve Stricker won’t. Stricker, 50, hasn’t missed the cut in a major in 10 years, covering 27 events entering the PGA, the game’s longest active streak. Three birdies on the closing five holes helped him get back inside the cutline at 3 over par, tied with Spieth.
“It was on my mind today,” Stricker said of the cut. “I wanted to be around this weekend.”
He’ll be around this weekend. So will Spieth. They just won’t be around the lead.
Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle