Close to home, Kis­ner is in a comfy spot at the PGA

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - SALLY JENK­INS sally.jenk­ins@wash­post.com For more by Sally Jenk­ins, visit wash­ing­ton­post.com/jenk­ins.

char­lotte — Kevin Kis­ner knows Quail Hol­low al­most as well as his own back porch, and in a tour­na­ment as haz­ard-filled and hard to score in as this PGA Cham­pi­onship has been, that’s an edge. The red hots and the more es­tab­lished cham­pi­ons crowded around him on the leader board, try­ing so hard to make things hap­pen, while the banty lit­tle guy acted like his cleats be­longed up on the club­house rail.

Kis­ner is a hook and bul­let type who still lives in his home town of Aiken, S.C., be­cause, “When I was broke, that’s the only place I could af­ford to buy a house.” He has made the twohour drive from there to here ev­ery Thanks­giv­ing and Christ­mas of his life to visit his 93-year-old grand­mother who lives in Char­lotte, and along the way he got well-ac­quainted with Quail Hol­low, learned to read the mys­te­ri­ous side-slopes and slick mounded greens that have so hu­mil­i­ated his bet­ters. That’s not to say he won’t get over­taken by a big­ger name player on Sun­day, with the likes of the elec­tric Hideki Mat­suyama right be­hind him and thirst­ing for a first ma­jor and the proven en­tity Louis Oosthuizen just two strokes back. Just that Kis­ner is com­fort­able in this place, and com­fort­able with a one-stroke lead af­ter 54 holes, and not a bit afraid of any of it. “I like beat­ing peo­ple, and I like com­pet­ing,” he says.

Kis­ner, 33, has fought through ev­ery level of mi­nor league golf to get here, “played mini-tours, learned how to win there; played the Web.com Tour, learned how to win there; got to the PGA Tour, learned how to win there,” he says. “The next step is com­pet­ing and win­ning ma­jor cham­pi­onships.” The learn­ing has come hard: at 5 feet 10 and just 160 pounds, he has to get ev­ery bit out of him­self to keep

up with the big­ger hit­ters, and he has be­come re­spected as one of the fiercest bat­tlers in the field. “Maybe be­cause I beat ev­ery­body on Tues­days,” he jokes. A sparky-eyed sort who talks to him­self frankly af­ter shots, he re­al­ized while he was trudg­ing along on the Web.com Tour that he wasn’t a good enough ball striker to sur­vive for long on the PGA Tour, so he re­built his game from the ground up with in­struc­tor John Tillery in 2013, cur­ing a flawed back­swing. The re­sult is a self­made man who has climbed to No. 25 in the world. When he lifted the tro­phy at the Dean & DeLuca In­vi­ta­tional at Colo­nial this sea­son for the sec­ond PGA Tour win of his ca­reer, he re­warded his long­time cad­die with a Ford F-150 King Ranch pickup truck as a thank you.

The ges­ture seemed pure Kis­ner, reg­u­lar, un­pre­ten­tious, real, yet classy. When he is not on a golf course he is drink­ing beer with his old friends in the coun­try. “Go out where there’s no cell­phone ser­vice and spend the af­ter­noon,” he says. “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.”

Kis­ner is not try­ing to be any more or less than who he re­ally is, and you get the feel­ing that’s a ma­jor as­set at Quail Hol­low, the 7,600-yard par-71 that has baited and chas­tened so many play­ers through three rounds, es­pe­cially the bru­tal three clos­ing holes known as The Green Mile.

“You got to be able to take 30 feet, and take your medicine,” Kis­ner said.

The length in­vites ego­tis­tic chance-tak­ing, yet the greens pun­ish it, the hard­est and fastest the play­ers have seen all sea­son.

“If you try and over­power it too much or get too ag­gres­sive, it will jump up and get you at some point,” Rickie Fowler said.

It got ev­ery­body at some point — no­body was im­mune from a dou­ble bo­gey. It got Fowler, who struck his tee shot into the dank wa­ter at the par-3 17th for a dou­ble and lost four shots over the last three holes for a 73 to stand six shots back. It got Ja­son Day, who dou­ble-bo­geyed the short par-4 14th and then took a quadru­ple 8 when he hit into the woods, fol­lowed by a hedge on the fi­nal hole. And it got Kis­ner.

His ap­proach from the rough on the par-4 16th skewed into the pond and cost him a dou­ble, and then he bo­geyed the 18th as well when he hooked a 7-iron and just avoided a creek, for a 72 and a to­tal of 7-un­der-par 206.

“Stupid play,” he said. “Just puts a lit­tle more fire into me for to­mor­row.”

But they were rare mis­takes from Kis­ner, who had gone 24 con­sec­u­tive holes with­out a sin­gle bo­gey be­tween his sec­ond and third round. Birdies at the short 14th, a par 4, with a wedge that he struck closer to the stick than his own height, and an­other at the gen­er­ous par-5 15th had given him a two-stroke lead be­fore the er­rant swing into the wa­ter. For the week he has gen­er­ally been straight off the tee and vec­tored in to the greens, while oth­ers were chop­ping out of the spongy Ber­muda grass. And he has done it all while seem­ing to stay within him­self, with no sense of ex­tend­ing beyond his ca­pac­i­ties, or of be­ing in­tim­i­dated by the oc­ca­sion.

“I know the golf course,” he said.

Of course, that could change on Sun­day. Kis­ner is self-aware enough to ad­mit his un­re­mark­able his­tory in the ma­jors makes him no fa­vorite. In 11 pre­vi­ous ap­pear­ances, all he has are “tons of 30th to 40th and 50th-place fin­ishes,” he ac­knowl­edged. This sea­son he was tied for 43rd at the Masters, tied for 58th in the U.S. Open at Erin Hills and tied for 54 th in the Bri­tish Open at Royal Birk­dale.

He is just a guy with a lit­tle bit of a home­town ad­van­tage, who seems more com­fort­able on the course than any­one else. And who plays the game with an in­ter­est­ing, for­ti­fy­ing self-hon­esty.

“At the end of the day, it’s just golf, right,” he says. “I have to hit my tee ball where I’m try­ing to look, and if I don’t, I have to find a way to get the ball in the hole the fastest. I think play­ers spend too much work into fig­ur­ing out golf cour­ses, in­stead of just get­ting the ball in the hole. If that’s more the mind-set, things aren’t so hard to look at out there. It’s just a game then.”

Sally Jenk­ins

STU­ART FRANKLIN/GETTY IM­AGES

“I like beat­ing peo­ple and I like com­pet­ing,” says Kevin Kis­ner, 33, who has rein­vented his game to keep up with the big­ger hit­ters.

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