CHARLOTTE – Scott Brown plays golf with Kevin Kisner every day when the two, friends since their junior-golf days, are back home in Aiken, S.C. They both are members at Palmetto Golf Club, share instructors (John Tillery) and even own identical golf carts.
If anyone knows Kisner’s game, it’s Brown.
“He always hits it pretty good,” Brown said. “If he drives it good and putts it good, he’s probably going to be there. … Usually he lives and dies by his driver.”
So it’s no surprise to Brown that Kisner finds himself atop the leaderboard after 54 holes of the 99th PGA Championship. Kisner ranks 17th in strokes gained-off the tee, fifth in strokes gained-tee to green and fourth in strokes gained-putting.
“That adds up to leading, man,” Brown said.
That all-around game has Kisner at 7 under, a shot clear of Hideki Matsuyama and Chris Stroud, despite a third-round 1-over 72 on Saturday.
“I’ve been happy with the driver all week,” Kisner said. “I drove it really well, and then today I hit a lot of great putts that just burned edges and I thought the greens were more difficult to hold putts. Nobody in our group made hardly anything. Obviously, not many in the field did, with the scores, and hopefully tomorrow they will all start falling.”
Kisner, still searching for his first major title at age 33, will be in an unfamiliar position on Sunday. In 11 previous major appearances, he has no top 10s and has never been in the final group on the last day.
Luckily, there is a lot that Kisner can find comfort in.
First off, Kisner loves Bermuda grass. It’s the kind he grew up on and has had success on as a PGA Tour member. He won his first Tour title at the RSM Classic, played on Sea Island’s Seaside Course, which features tifdwarf Bermudagrass greens. His playoff loss at the 2015 Players came before TPC Sawgrass’ Bermuda greens were renovated. Bay Hill and Harbour Town, two courses where Kisner has been runner-up, have TifEagle Bermuda greens.
Second, Kisner knows this golf course. He and Brown made a scouting trip to Quail Hollow in July to check out the changes. They studied the new par-4 opening hole, as well as Nos. 4 and 5 (also new holes). The most overwhelming takeaway from that trip was that Quail Hollow was long – very long.
“We realized that we had to be spot on to be in the mix,” Brown said. “He’s ballstriking it to death right now, which is what he’s gotta do because it’s playing so long. We hit it about the same distance off the tee and I know what I’ve had into some of these greens.”
Kisner is putting to rest the belief that Quail Hollow is only a bomber’s paradise. He got to 10 under on Saturday after back-to-back birdies, at Nos. 15-16. And although a double bogey on the par-4 16th after pulling his approach into the water and closing bogey on the difficult par-4 18th cost him some shots, Kisner is happy to be in the position he’s in.
“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.”
Kisner has stuck to his game plan this week. He’s taken his medicine on harder holes and taken advantage of the easier ones. Brown doesn’t believe the pressure will cause Kisner to stray. Even with guys like Matsuyama, Justin Thomas, Louis Oosthuizen and Patrick Reed trying to chase him down.
“That’s probably one of his greatest assets: his belief in himself,” said Brown, who played a practice round with Kisner on Wednesday. “It wouldn’t surprise me if he won. … He’s humbly confident. He’s not going to go around telling everybody he’s great, but his belief in himself is very high.”
Kisner is also great at handling – and hiding – his emotions, according to Chris Haack, his college coach at the University of Georgia.
“The golf course here is so hard; if you get pissed, you’re just going to throw away more shots,” Kisner said. “There’s no real reason to show that emotion.”
But don’t worry, Kisner says, “I’ll show plenty of emotion if I win tomorrow.”