CHARLOTTE, N.C. – On moving day, nobody on the leaderboard moved much at the PGA Championship. Quail Hollow was too obstinate, the greens too untamable, the humidity too draining. And waiting at the end, to torment weary golfers whose focus had begun to wilt...the merciless Green Mile.
Sooner or later, it got to them all, even the par machine on top of the leaderboard. When Kevin Kisner hit into the water on No. 16 for a double bogey, then bounced a second shot off the creek bridge on No, 18 that led to a bogey -- yet another victim on the Green Mile – it was clear nobody was safe. Even the imperturbable had been perturbed.
“It feels easy until you bounce one in the water,” he would say later. “Then it seems really hard again.
“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 right in the face.”
And still he leads – by one shot over a remarkable Cinderella story named Chris Stroud, and Hideki Matsuyama. Kisner in front has not changed.
It was all so steamy, oppressive and uncomfortable Saturday. And that was just the first hole. When all 75 golfers came and went on the 522-yard, par-4 No. 1 without a single birdie – but 30 bogeys and three doubles – we had a hint what the day would be.
At the other end, on No. 18, they faced a hole that allowed but two birdies Saturday, and swallowed up 32 of the 75 golfers with bogeys or worse. In Jason Day’s case, much worse; a quadruple 8, when his judgment wavered in the heat and he tried to hit a second shot from the trees by way of Raleigh. In 10 minutes, he went from sixth to a tie for 16th.
By the end of the long day, the three groups who had gone off last – the top nine names on the leader board heading into the third round – had combined to shoot 15-over par. Only Justin Thomas with a 69 had broken par.
So come Sunday, fate must finally make up its mind.
Why not Kisner?
Par, par, par. Another par. That’s what it was like in the gallery for Kisner, who is trying to win the PGA Championship with the steady resolve ants build a hill. While others ebbed and flowed according to the latest putt, he kept hitting fairways, hitting greens. Until No. 16, that is. Before that, he had four bogeys in 69 holes. He had pars on 10 of the first 11 holes Saturday.
There were times it almost seemed as if he was playing a different golf course than anyone else. But nobody gets away clean this week. Still, the man who has never finished in the top 10 of a major has this one in sight.
“I had a chance to run away from guys and take people out of the tournament, and I didn’t do it,” he said. “Now I’m in a dogfight tomorrow and I have to be prepared for that.”
Then again, why not Chris Stroud?
He might not quite be John Daly, circa 1991, but he’s not far off, either. He was the last man to make this tournament, when he finally won on the PGA Tour last week on his 289th start. He came here ranked 203rd in the world and hadn’t even played in a major since 2014.
“I really didn’t do anything great today, but I didn’t do anything really bad,” he said. “At the end of the day, I’m still there, and I’ve got a chance.
“You know I’ve been waiting for this for a long time,”
His 71 Saturday suggested he is not going away. So does this – he has only 1-over this week on the Green Mile.
His nerves, at the chance to reenact a Daly PGA 26 years later? “I’m as calm as I’ve ever been.” His college nickname back at Lamar University: “Mr. Positivity.” He’ll need to be.
Or why not Matsuyama?
His ball-striking began to wonder Saturday – this was no 61 at Firestone -- but he managed his way to a 73, and has been a constant presence in the majors. An entire country is on his side Sunday. Only in Japan, it’ll be Monday.
Or why not Thomas?
“About as good as I had today,” said the man who at the age of 16, earned a spot in the PGA Tour Wyndham Championship event by winning an amateur tournament, then shocked golf with a bogey-free 65 the first day.
Or why not Louis Oosthuizen?
He is only two shots back, and the only man in the top 15 who has won a major, seven years removed from his Open Championship. He understands how important patience will be Sunday. “I think everyone is going to maybe make a few mistakes out there,” he said.
Fate must sort it all out. But Quail Hollow will have a say, too.
“The pins are on knobs,” Jordan Spieth mentioned of the greens, on a day he badly needed a rally but could manage only even 71.
“I feel like I’m out there trying to survive,” Webb Simpson said after a 72. And he’s a Quail Hollow member. He said the players like the place, but “I think the big vote is, it’s maybe a little too difficult.”
“You can’t fake it around here,” said Rickie Fowler, whose round was devoured by the Green Mile, going bogey-double- bogey-bogey. He’s six shots back, and can easily think of what might have been. “The biggest thing is -- everyone will say it -- staying patient. But it’s easier said than done.”
Never mind Kisner’s par-a-palooza. This was an exhausting day of give and take. There was Graham DeLaet. On the same back side Saturday, he had a double bogey followed by a 6-under par binge in four holes – birdie, back-to-back eagles, 46-foot birdie putt. All good for a 68.
Or Bryson DeChambeau, whose 72 included two double bogeys, two eagles, and a 47-yard birdie putt.
Or Jon Rahm, who had six birdies in 11 holes, then two double bogeys and a bogey in the next four holes. It all added up to a 71.
Or the group of Spieth, Vijay Singh and Tommy Fleetwood, who all double bogeyed No. 18. That was a stretch where five of nine golfers who played No. 18 took double bogeys. “A ridiculously hard hole today,” Spieth said.
Quail Hollow giveth and Quail Hollow taketh away, especially those last three deadly holes.
That is why they’ll be facing late Sunday afternoon, as they take the last steps to the Wanamaker Trophy. Be it Stroud with a fairy tale or Matsuyama with the chance to make his nation swoon. Or Kisner, who has barely changed expression in three of the most monumental days of his golfing life. He spent Saturday morning building forts with his little daughter. Sunday, history will be staring him in the face.
“I’ll show plenty of emotion if I win tomorrow,” he said. “Don’t worry.”
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