CHARLOTTE — First off, this guy knows how old his grandmother is. (Ninety-three, and living here, on her own.) So in case you were looking for a reason to root for Kevin Kisner this weekend, there’s that. Because, let’s be honest here, how many 33-year-old touring pros know the age of their grandmothers?
Then there’s his total lack of pretense. On Friday, after shooting 67 on the heels of a first-round 67, Kisner was asked if people in airports ever ask him for golf tips. No, is the short answer. He explains: “Most of them want me to come play with them somewhere, and I tell them that I don’t really play golf on my casual time. But for the right price, I’ll come anywhere.” Kisner is a professional golfer, tied for the lead at this 99th PGA Championship.
This is his 11th major and he’s never even sniffed a top-10 finish in the other 10, but you never know. He scores high for grit and he’s won twice on Tour, at Colonial this year and at Sea Island in 2015. Earlier that year, he was in a three-man playoff with Sergio Garcia and Rickie Fowler at the Players, won by Fowler. He’s the classic no-flash Tour player from yesteryear. He doesn’t hit it long but man alive he can golf his ball from 100 yards and in. It’s kind of charming to know there’s still a place in the game for such a person.
The greens at Quail Hollow are Bermuda and he grew up — in Aiken, S.C. — on Bermuda greens, and that’s a real thing, being a Bermuda-green specialist. The most famous example of that is Raymond Floyd, though Hubert Green, Jerry Pate, among other Sons of the South, could also be put on that list. Kisner is a long way from earning his place on it. But win a major on Bermuda greens first, and you’ll get right on it, kid!
“We have firm, fast Bermuda greens here, just like they have over there,” said Tommy Moore, who was the head pro at Palmetto Golf Club in Aiken when Kisner was learning the game there as a kid. He’s still a member at Palmetto and lives on the course in a house on which his father, a contractor, did a major renovation. “Bermuda grass has a lot of grain in it, and if you hit it in the wrong place, a ball will just bound off a Bermuda green. So it’s a different kind of surface.” A surface Kisner knows intimately. This might sound like high-minded golf-nerd talk, but it’s not. This is a real thing.
Kisner, like many of his brethren, is a terrible liar. (Gary Player, asked about a course for which he had no use: “It’s the finest course of its kind.”)
Kisner plays loads of golf in his “casual time.” But he does it with his hometown buds, not with strangers. He plays at Palmetto and down the street, at the tiny, excellent public course in town, Aiken Golf Club. He can’t shoot much worse than 67 there and there’s a lot to be said for that. It gets you thinking in terms of shooting low numbers.
“The last time he was here, it was just before the British Open, and he comes up to me and says, ‘What are you doing?'” Jim McNair, the owner and operator of the Aiken course, said on Thursday. “I was on our putting course and I said, ‘I’m pulling weeds.’ And he said, ‘You’re just like my dad, always working on something to make your business better.'” Steve Kisner and Jim McNair surely share that quality with Kisner, too. Tommy Moore, from Palmetto, says Kisner, trying to figure out the game, was like a sponge, always trying to learn another kind of shot.
“He was a cocky kid, always giving his dad a hard time about something, but it was always in good fun,” Moore said. For years, he got by on his short game. “When his Georgia team won the NCAAs, I said to him, ‘Anybody else who hit the ball like you did today would have shot in the 90s.'” You got to have a little jaw, to hang with these people. It’s part of what makes Kisner fun, and why Phil Mickelson, king of trash-talk, enjoys Kisner so much. Asked about his grades at Georgia and being an Academic All-American at Georgia, Kisner said, “You gotta have a 3.5 [GPA] or better, right? So something above that.” If you watch how he plays golf, or listen to him analyze a course or his own play, you can tell that he’s smart.
His preferred role is down-home Southern boy. Give him a cold one at dusk with his clubs on the back of a cart and Kisner is a happy man. Asked about off-course relaxation, Kisner said, “I love to just go home and hang out with my buddies in the countries. Go out where there’s no cell phone service and spend the afternoon. Love to fish, love to shoot guns, love to hunt, just get away from it. That’s my favorite part. I love my core group of friends at home. They don’t ask me why I made bogey on the last hole that cost me 20 grand or anything like that. That’s why I hang out with them. They’re a bunch of good dudes. I’m sure they will be up, having a good time, this weekend.”
Two more 67s, they’ll be having a real good time.
Michael Bamberger may be reached at email@example.com.