Former champs struggle while unexpected stars rise at PGA Championship

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Former champs struggle while unexpected stars rise at PGA Championship

CHARLOTTE, N. C. — Fickleness, thy name is golf. Especially at a major. Which is why Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy are double-digit shots behind at the PGA Championship, why Phil Mickelson has left town, why the golden group of this year’s three major champions — Spieth, Brooks Koepka, Sergio Garcia — produced one score under par, barely.

And why the leaderboard is not entirely what was expected, starting with the 5-foot-10 bundle of will from Aiken, South Carolina named Kevin Kisner, who shares the lead with Hideki Matsuyama, the guy on a roll from Japan.

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Golf being golf, the best-laid plans can get lost in the woods. Many of the storylines everyone had anticipated before the PGA are going blooey.

About Spieth’s quest for a career grand slam ... he’s 3-over par, 11 shots behind. Four birdies in two days.

About any compelling showdown between Spieth and McIlroy, the young titans of the game ... right now, it’s a showdown for 31st place.

About the featured group of Spieth, Garcia and Koepka — left to right, Claret Jug, green jacket, U.S. Open trophy — they had 14 bogeys Friday. Koepka’s two days were the best, at 1-under par.

About Mickelson rekindling the magic in time to earn a Presidents Cup team berth, and wouldn’t the masses at Quail Hollow roar for that ... he was on a plane out of Charlotte after missing the cut by a Green Mile, at 11-over par. In two days, he had 12 bogeys, plus a double.

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“It’s not like I’m hitting the ball crooked, I’m just hitting it in the wrong spots,” he said when the long day was over. “Not really controlling my thought process, where I want the ball to go. I’m not real focused out there. I’m having a tough time visualizing my shots.”

How to fix it? “That’s a good question. I’ll have to figure that out.”

About Jimmy Walker’s PGA title defense, he was tied for 97th after Friday. Way below the projected cutline. For that matter, the 11 guys in the field who have won a PGA Championship in this century were a combined 68-over par.

Well, you get the idea.

And who rises above all this clutter? Matsuyama, for one. He’s the one over there surrounded by about two dozen microphones from golf-adoring Japan. After tying for 11th at the Masters, second at the U.S. Open and 14th at the British Open — not to mention his Sunday 61 to win the WGC-Bridgestone the other day — it seems only a matter of time before he crashes a major. “Keep knocking on the door, and hopefully one day it will open,” he said Friday through a translator. Maybe in 48 hours.

But then there’s the guy with him on the leaderboard, who’s never finished in the Top 10 of a major, this year having tied for 43rd, 58th and 54th. Kisner shares the lead after back-to-back 67s.

He’s in for an anxious time, waiting to go off last Saturday. Or not.

“I’ll be bored to death by then, ready to go play,” Kisner was saying Friday. “I’m sure there will be nerves in there, but that’s what we play for and that’s what we practice for.”

So while many of the big names struggle with Quail Hollow, now would be a good time to make sure we’re all up on our Kisner:

  • Aiken is a short drive from Augusta, and he used to go watch the Masters as a kid. His first? “’I’ve asked my parents and they can’t even remember.”
  • He has ties to Charlotte, since his 93-year-old grandmother still lives here. One thing, though. “Phil is her favorite golfer.”
  • He was team captain at Georgia, and also an academic All-American. Which begs the question to ask his grade point average. “I can’t remember. It has to be more than 3.5, right?”
  • He played basketball and football as a kid, but quickly learned his best chances were in a sport where size didn’t matter as much. But those games taught him something that carries over to this very weekend. “I’ve never been the biggest guy, so I had to find a way to get things done. That’s why I play golf now, because I was better than everybody else at golf. I like beating people and I like competing, and that’s kind of how I was raised.”
  • At 33, he already has taken a long and winding journey through professional golf, going from the hinterlands to the leaderboard of the PGA. It took 109 starts to win his first Tour victory, the RSM Classic in 2016. He added the Dean & DeLuca Invitational this year. “I’ve kind of processed my whole career in that stage. I’ve played mini-tours, learned how to win there; played the Tour, learned how to win there; got to the PGA Tour, learned how to win there. The next step is competing and winning major championships. I think a big step is just understanding that no lead is safe.”
  • He might have been an academic whiz as a Georgia Bulldog, but his idea now is to make his profession as uncomplicated as possible. “At the end of the day, it’s just golf, right? 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 mindset, things aren’t so hard to look at out there. It’s just a game then.”

Take his strategy for Quail Hollow. He has identified four holes — Nos. 7, 8, 14 and 15 — as the places to go for birdies. “Other than that, I’m playing for par,” he said. And he means it.

In two days, he is 7-under on those four holes, 1-under the other 14.

He’s been successful enough in recent years to move to a nice mansion in Florida, or somewhere else posh. But he’s still in Aiken, population in the 31,000 range. General Sherman came through there in the final months of the Civil War.

“I was playing mini-tours and I was broke, that’s the only place I could afford to buy a house, and I went back there,” Kisner said. “I just love it.” His idea of a grand time is to fish and hunt — “Go where there’s no cell phone service and spend the afternoon” — and hang around with his core of Aiken friends. “They don’t ask me why I made bogey on the last hole that cost me 20 grand.”

This weekend, with his buddies from Aiken no doubt watching, Kevin Kisner will try to stay with the game plan.

“I’m a big process guy, I’ll stick with my process. I’ll really start worrying about the results with a few holes to go on Sunday.”

Rains made the course slightly less menacing late Friday, and more is forecast. What result to expect now from Quail Hollow? As the first two days at the PGA Championship clearly showed, golf is far too uncooperative to answer that question.