Kevin Kisner leads a host of would-be kings after 54 holes at Quail Hollow

August 12, 2017

CHARLOTTE — Before he stuffed a wad of tobacco into his lower lip, strolled out and played one of the most pressurized rounds of his life, and before he stepped to the microphone to describe what it all meant with a combination of cool confidence and unabashed candor, Kevin Kisner was possibly best-known for winning two PGA Tour titles, the 2015 Fall Series event in Sea Island and earlier this year at Colonial. But he was probably best known for being suspended from his home golf club in Aiken, S.C., after the club caught wind of a video that showed Kis and his buddies tearing around the course in carts and drinking beer. Say what you will about that, but know this: Kisner isn’t your average pro in a polo shirt.

Sunday he could also become a major champion.

On a sunny and sweltering afternoon, Kisner, 33, played 15 holes of mostly flawless golf, then made two late miscues before signing for a one-over 72 that left him at 7 under, one shot better than Hideki Matsuyama and Chris Stroud. But 11 players lurk within five shots of Kisner’s lead, setting up what could be a wild finish at this 99th PGA Championship.

“I had a chance to run away from guys and take people out of the tournament that were four or five, six back, and I didn’t do it,” Kisner said. “Now I’m in a dogfight tomorrow and I have to be prepared for that.”

On Saturday, it was all about survival.

When Kisner brushed in his third birdie of the day on the par-5 15th, he was 10 under and two shots clear. But on 16, a par 4 that kicks off Quail’s treacherous three-hole finishing stretch known as (let’s all say it together) the Green Mile, he made his first big blunder when he overcooked a draw that splashed into a pond left of the green. His 30-footer for bogey slammed into the back of the cup and rimmed out.

On 18 Kisner hooked another approach shot, and his ball caromed off a small foot-bridge and settled in the rough wide of the stream. He did well to chip on and two-putt for a closing bogey. Despite the tough finish, Kisner was pleased with his position.

“There’s no real reason for me getting mad or upset or showing y’all that I’m ticked off,” he said. “I’m pretty good at keeping it all in, and the golf course here is so hard. If you get pissed, you’re just going to throw away more shots. There’s no real reason to show that emotion.

“I’ll show plenty of emotion if I win tomorrow, don’t worry.”

Kisner’s run has been astonishing, but if he passes for a Cinderella, what beloved Disney character does that leave for Chris Stroud? We’re going to need one. The 35-year-old Texan played 290 Tour events — 290! — before finally raising a trophy last week at the Barracuda Championship, an alternate-field event for pros who lacked the ranking points to get into the Bridgestone. That W earned Stroud the final spot in this PGA, and now in his first major in three years, he has a shot at what would be one of the most shocking titles of all time as he plays alongside Kisner in Sunday’s final pairing. Stroud, sounding like very much the underdog, plans to continue to ride the wave that started a week ago.

“Just don’t change anything. Don’t mess up the streak, like Kevin Costner says in Bull Durham, one of my favorite movies,” Stroud said. “I have the same everything I have last week. I have the same swing thoughts as last week, I have the same routine warming up. I’m not going to change anything.”

But a cast of pursuers is waiting. Matsuyama is tied with Stroud after a two-over 73, and he’ll play with Justin Thomas, who shot a steady 69 and trails by two.

For most of the field, it was a day to just try and hang on.

Louis Oosthuizen smacked a tree root while playing an escape shot from under the pines on the 2nd hole, bent his club and tweaked his wrist. But he taped himself up and managed to turn in an even-par 71, and the former British Open champ is tied with Thomas at 5 under.

Rickie Fowler was chugging along, two under for his round and three shots off the lead, before staggering through the Green Mile bogey-double bogey-bogey. “You can’t limp in. You’ve got to finish it off,” he said after signing for 73. He’s six shots back.

Jason Day was within four when he reached the 18th hole. But he drove it into the trees, attempted a hook shot around the pines that was unsuccessful and made a stunning quad to finish with 77 and wipe himself out of contention.

But then there’s Matsuyama, No. 3 in the world and fresh off a victory at the Bridgestone, his 14th worldwide title. He started nervously (bogey on 1), found his rhythm (1 under over his next 10 holes), then hung on at the finish (even par through the Green Mile) to sign for 73. The 25-year-old remains somewhat enigmatic to the American audience, but he’s big-time in Japan. Matsuyama is tirelessly followed by a contingent of Japanese media, who snap photos and pen stories that are splashed throughout the papers back home.

“How many photos of Hideki have I taken? I can’t even count this,” said Eiko Oizumi, a digital journalist with Golf Today Japan, as she strolled along the fairways while lugging her gear. Eiko says she snaps about 3,000 pics a day, and more than two-thirds are Matsuyama. She’s been tracking him since he started burning up the Japan Golf Tour four years ago, so, if some quick math is correct, she could be sitting on a Matsuyama photo library that numbers deep into six figures. Eiko said that in Japan, Matsuyama has generated the most fan interest since Tiger Woods. With a win this week, Matsuyama would close that gap in Q-rating.

“Tiger is dominant, like a king,” Eiko said. “A lot of people in Japan think he could be the next one.”

A would-be-king? Sounds like the movie has been fully cast. Sunday it’ll play right there on your television.