ST. LOUIS – By a stormy Friday afternoon, they were all chasing Group 20 at the PGA Championship.
Each threesome came with a number at Bellerive. The masses might have clogged the walkways following the supergroup of No. 35, with Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas – as Woods lit up the premises with some early birdies Friday.
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And they were thick at the ropes whenever the royal gang of this season’s three major winners -- Patrick Reed, Brooks Koepka and Francesco Molinari – went by as Group 19. Especially when Koepka reeled off a 63 Friday to rush into third place.
But Group 20 – the pairings sheet said it would tee off at 8:01 a.m. on No. 10 Friday -- was not on the radar screen. Not at the beginning, anyway. Fifty-two groupings were on the course Friday. What’s the odds, that the two names at the top of the leaderboard would come from the same pairing?
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Can’t happen. But it did.
See the guy in salmon-colored shirt? That’s Gary Woodland. Took the lead Thursday with a 64, and kept it Friday with a 66. That included the second eagle of the entire tournament. So he might sleep with the lead Friday night, and promised the hours won’t drag by until the third round. “I’ve got a 13-month old. He’ll occupy the time.”
See the guy in the light green shirt? That’s Kevin Kisner. He birdied his first hole – No. 10 – and the charge was on. “That hole’s hard enough, 510 yards at 8 o’clock in the morning,” he would say later. He birdied six of his first nine holes for a side of 29, and finished at 64 to stand one shot behind.
See the guy in the blue shirt? Sergio Garcia. He didn’t have nearly as much fun as his partners, with a 70-71. But at least he had a great view of a lot of good golf. In two days, Woodland and Kisner produced 22 birdies and an eagle.
So how was it playing in Group 20?
First, it was loud. Especially with Woodland, a Kansas Jayhawk in the land of the Missouri Tigers. The gallery never lets him forget it, even as it cheers his birdies. “M-I-Z!” they were shouting at him before his first tee shot, with the Tiger chant. “We’re kind of in enemy territory down here,” he said. “I’m getting a lot more M-I-Z’s than Rock Chalks, which is very rare.”
So Kisner noticed. “I didn’t know there was such a rivalry. They’re fighting across fairways at each other.”
Next, it was contagious. As the birdies piled up, the two golfers looked like race cars drafting off one another.
“It was nice to feed off that energy. (Kisner) drove the ball unbelievable, and he gets that putter rolling quite often,” Woodland said.
“I think every time that you see guys playing well, it kind of drags other guys in the group along,” Kisner said. “Sergio wasn’t having his best day, but I bet we made him hang in there, just because of how well we were going.”
Also, it was friendly. “Gary and I are good buddies, had a great time out there playing, and if I could only hit it as far as he can, it would be a different game,” Kisner said.
They are close enough, they can even bring their families into it. “His kid got my kid sick,” Kisner said. “We have been arguing about that all week. Both our kids were sick on Monday and we were blaming each other for it.”
And lastly, it probably ain’t over yet. Barring a dramatic late move by someone in the rain-delayed second round -- Rickie Fowler bears particular watching -- the two will be paired again for the third round on Saturday, going off last as the leaders.
Gary Woodland, the man who has never finished higher than 12th in a major, but is putting up birdies with new confidence in his putter. “I feel safe because I feel safe where my game is,” he said of the burden of being the man in front.
Kevin Kisner, who finished tied for second at the British Open last month, and is trying to keep things simple. “All I know is, if I hit it in the fairway and hit it on the green and make the putt, I’m probably going to have a good shot at it. That’s all I’m going to keep trying to do. I’m not going to get too caught up in it. I think you guys get more caught up in it than we do. You play the best, you win, that’s about it.”
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So far, this has been the PGA of yellow ribbons and red caps. The yellow in memory of player Jarrod Lyle, who died this week from leukemia at 36; they adorn nearly every contestant. The red because this place is overrun with Cardinal fans.
This has been the PGA of enormous crowds. St. Louis has not seen many majors, and you can tell they are eager. “This morning we were off at 6:55, I didn’t expect a soul there,” Brandon Stone was saying after his 68. “(By) the third hole, they were three, four-deep, lining every fairway.”
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This has been the PGA of low numbers. When the storms stopped play Friday, nine men had already shot 65 or lower for the second round, with 78 players still on the course. Koepka and Charl Schwartzel both had record-tying 63s – the first time in PGA history there had been two on one day. Only once in the previous 99 had there been two 63s in the same tournament. Woodland’s 36-hole score of 130 was a record.
And this has been the PGA of Group 20. Woodland and Kisner, together Thursday and Friday, probably together Saturday, like two pals off for the week on a golf trip. Only, they lead a major. But there are a bunch of big names not far behind.
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