CHARLOTTE – There is nothing remarkable about Kevin Kisner. He’s not that strong. He’s not especially creative. He’s not some magical wizard on the greens, or blasting out of bunkers, or hooking around pines. If his golf game were set to music, he’s north of what one would hear in the elevator but south of whatever your go-to station is on Pandora or satellite radio.
And then there’s this, from his former college coach at Georgia: “I was debating whether to even take him to the NCAAs (in 2005),” Chris Haack said. “But I decided I needed him there because of his character, his fight and his demeanor. He’s a good team guy.”
“He shot a 65, and we ended up winning the national championship.”
Turns out Mr. Congeniality also can play a little.
Kisner lost his Tour card twice. It took 109 tournaments before he won his first PGA event. But at the age of 33, he’s on the verge of winning a major. He gave a few shots back near the end of his third round Saturday in the PGA Championship but finished with a 1 over for the day and, at 7 under for the tournament, clings to a one-shot lead over Chris Stroud at Quail Hollow.
This is not the top of the leaderboard anybody would’ve expected. Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy were among the favorites. Kisner and Stroud – who won his first career tournament and qualified only last week in Reno – were afterthoughts.
“I’m still floating from last week,” Stroud said.
Kisner is floating right there with him. He would’ve had a bigger cushion if not for a double-bogey on 16 – second shot into the lake, three-putt after one bounced off the lip of the cup – and a bogey on 18. Otherwise, he has been strong on the greens and has consistently hit fairways.
“I had a chance to put away guys four, five or six back, and I didn’t do it. So now I’m in a dogfight,” he said.
But even when he dropped a shot in the water or had putts lip out, he remained composed. It struck Haack when Kisner was at Georgia that, “If you watched him play, you never knew if he was having a good day or a bad day. His attitude never changed.”
Kisner smiled slightly when that subject was brought up Saturday.
“I think I’ve always been pretty good at that,” he said. “This game will do it to you. As soon as you think you’re on top of things it finds a way to kick you in the face. There’s no real reason to get mad or show you that I’m ticked off. The golf course here is so hard that if you get pissed you’re just going to throw away shots.”
And then, “I’ll show plenty of emotion if I win tomorrow.”
This is the pro-athlete version of the everyday guy. Georgia’s golf program has produced a number of pros. There were seven in this PGA field, including Bubba Watson. Kisner was a four-time All-American, but Haack said he wasn’t extraordinary in any particular area: power, short game or putting.
“He was just pretty good at about everything, but he had the best demeanor and the best attitude of all on the golf course,” he said.
Haack learned something about Kisner’s grit his freshman year. The player was in position to win the NCAA title and was looking at a downhill putt of about 15 feet on the 18th hole.
“He knew he’d have a hard time stopping the ball, but his attitude was, ‘I’m going to try to win this,’” Haack said. “So he went for it, but he missed and knocked it about five, six feet past the hole. I remember thinking he was going to have a meltdown because he three-putted and lost the championship. But he never batted an eye.”
Another memory from Georgia days: Kisner shot a 93 one year in the first round of the SEC championships. The next day he shot a 73. His ability to grind has been on display this week. Saturday’s round was played in extreme heat and humidity. His round time: 5 hours, 40 minutes.
“Just standing around in probably 105 heat index is not a whole lot of fun. It’s difficult on your mental game.”
It helps that Quail Hollow is his relative backyard. He’s from nearby Aiken, S.C., which allowed him to drive over a few weeks ago to scout the course and conditions. His parents are from Charlotte. He still has family here.
“I spent every Thanksgiving and Christmas in Charlotte from childhood to marriage,” he said this week.
He’s just your basic everyday dude, with his core group of friends.
“They don’t pester me about golf. We just hang out and have a couple of beers on the back porch.”
This dude also was on the back porch of his career for a while. Kisner competed in mini-tours, gained and lost his PGA Tour card twice, failed to regain it a third time in Q school, then finally re-qualified with a strong season in the Web.com tour in 2013.
The golf gods tested him one more time in 2015. Kisner lost three tournaments in playoff holes. The last time that happened: 1937 (Horton Smith). But he finally won on Tour for the first time at the RSM Classic in Sea Island later that year and again this past May in Fort Worth.
At the outset this week, he belabored his history of poor performances in majors. That’s not the case going into Sunday.
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