When a pro athlete is called a “big-timer,” it’s never a compliment. It means a guy who abandoned his old friends, developed excessive swagger and views average folk as servants and enablers.
Kevin Kisner, from Aiken, S.C. and still of Aiken, is anything but a big-timer.
Kisner shot back-to-back 67s in the first two rounds of the PGA Championship at Quail Hollow and shares the lead with Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama. If he wins Sunday, he’ll then return to his hometown, grab his fishing pole or shotgun, and round up his childhood friends.
“They don’t ask me why I made bogey on the last hole that cost me $20,000, or anything like that,” Kisner said Friday of his buddies. “We go out where there’s no cell-phone service and spend the afternoon. Love to fish, love to shoot guns, love to hunt.
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“They are a bunch of good dudes and I’m sure they will be up (in Charlotte) having a good time this weekend.”
Kisner, 33, has all the elements this week to win his first major. He knows Quail Hollow better than most – his brother-in-law is a member – and he showed up in Charlotte with a detailed plan how to navigate the renovated layout. He’s playing to the height of his powers, as demonstrated by the eagle 3 he made Friday on the par-5 No. 7 hole.
“I’ve never been the biggest guy, so I had to find a way to get things done,” said Kisner, who is 5-foot-10 and 165 pounds. “I like beating people and I like competing. That’s how I was raised.”
His father, Steve, saw that fire and golf potential when Kevin was 6 and played in an 8-and-under tournament in Hilton Head, S.C.
Kevin finished second in a field of players two years older.
His reaction to the runner-up finish?
“He sat down on the ninth green and cried, because he didn’t finish first,” Steve Kisner told the Observer. “That’s when I thought, ‘He has something.’ ”
Growing up, Kisner spent every Thanksgiving and Christmas in Charlotte, which is about a two-hour drive from Aiken. His mother and father attended Charlotte’s Harding High . After graduating from N.C. State (his wife attended Duke), Steve Kisner accepted a job in Aiken, where he taught young Kevin to play golf.
Kevin wasn’t one of those one-sport wonders who gave up everything else at 10 to spend hours daily on the driving range. He played football until the ninth grade, when he realized at his size he’d be “crushed” if he continued in that sport.
Basketball was harder to give up. Finally, his basketball and golf coaches convinced him his potential was high enough to specialize in the latter. This proved to be an excellent choice.
Kisner said he never left Aiken, a town of about 31,000, partly because it was the place he could afford to buy a house while still playing golf’s mini tours.
Despite its size, Aiken was a good base for a young golfer, as it’s about 20 miles from Augusta National (Ga.), home of the Masters. Kisner was a contemporary (and close friend) in South Carolina junior golf with Dustin Johnson, currently top ranked in the world. Kisner played college golf at Georgia before turning pro in 2006.
Success was anything but instantaneous. After qualifying for the PGA Tour, he temporarily fell back to golf’s minors. Now he sees the sequential nature of the past decade as key to the place he’s at this weekend.
“I’ve played mini tours, learned to win there. Played the Web.com tour, learned how to win there. Got to the PGA tour, learned how to win there,” Kisner said.
“The next step is competing and winning major championships. I think a big step is just understanding that no lead is safe.”
Kisner has won two PGA Tour titles, including the Dean & DeLuca Invitational in May at Colonial Country Club in Forth Worth, Texas. That victory makes him a strong candidate for the 12-player Presidents Cup team. He’s ranked 25th in the world.
However, Kisner has never finished better than a tie for 12th in a major (the 2015 U.S. Open). It’s no surprise the PGA Championship coming to Charlotte could be his breakthrough. Quail Hollow is a comfortable setting for him.
His brother-in-law’s grandfather, Gabby Street, was an original member at Quail Hollow. And Kisner’s 93-year-old grandmother, Fern Kisner, is in good health and lives in Charlotte.
Kisner has taken a low-risk approach to this course. He sees four holes – Nos. 7, 8, 14 and 15 – as prime birdie opportunities. He’s more conservative on the rest of the course, willing to sacrifice length to stay away from the gnarly Bermuda rough.
“He’s very methodical in what he’s doing. When he goes to work, he thinks it through,” Steve Kisner said. “He knows physically he can’t compete with some of these guys, so he figures it out.”
Earlier this week, Kisner found time to bring dinner to his grandmother, a voracious golf fan.
“She’s doing good,” Kisner said. “Phil (Mickelson) is still her favorite golfer, though.”
Win Sunday, and Kisner just might change that with Grandma.