CHARLOTTE — Kevin Kisner is a two-time PGA Tour winner and the 25th ranked player in the world. He’s got a well-earned reputation for grittiness by “beating up on people on Tuesday” in practice-round money games. Still, it’s a surprise atop the leader board halfway through the 99th PGA Championship.
As a short hitter, the 33-year-old South Carolinian is not a good match for Quail Hollow’s daunting combination of wet fairways and firm greens. He has not played particularly well lately. And he doesn’t have a strong record in the majors.
Indeed, Kisner hasn’t shown the kind of tee-to-green proficiency required to handle the game’s most demanding setups. In 11 previous major championship starts, he’s missed three cuts, and his best finish is T-12. He’s now made it to major weekends eight times in a row, but his best finish in that stretch was T-18.
“Yeah, I’ve been upset with how I’ve played in the majors so far in my career,” Kisner said on Friday after his second-straight four-under-par 67. “I feel like I have the game to compete in majors, but tons of 30th- to 40th- and 50th-place finishes. [Improving that] has kind of been our goal for the year.”
“He told me, ‘Just get me to hit it better, because I think I can win out there. I loved hearing that.” —John Tillery
But after a T-43 at the Masters, T-58 at Erin Hills and T-54 at Royal Birkdale, Kisner intensified his sessions with the instructor who began transforming his game in 2013, John Tillery. Last week the duo found a new way to look at an old problem.
As a result, Kisner has elevated his long game to perhaps the highest point of his career. At the PGA, he ranks first in greens in regulation at 83.3 percent and seventh in driving accuracy at 75 percent. With the punishing Bermuda rough making short in the fairway better than long in the rough, Kisner’s 291.5-yard driving-distance average, which ranks 92nd in the field, is long enough. “I’m really fired up about the way I’m hitting the golf ball,” he said.
For good reason. “I never was a good ball-striker,” Kisner said of the seven years he spent on the mini tours and the Web.com Tour before finally earning his PGA Tour card. “When I came out here…