CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Growing up in Aiken, S.C., Kevin Kisner got a taste of what golf might be like in an Open Championship, at least on a course as dry and firm as the one he dismantled on Thursday to begin the 147th Open at Carnoustie Golf Links.
“Absolutely,” he said, “Palmetto is a great golf course for British Open [experience]. It’s firm, fast and undulating around the greens. That’s why I feel so comfortable here around the greens, because I see the same type of shots at home often.”
With an eagle to kick-start his round at No. 6 and clutch par saves on the final three holes, Kisner vaulted into the early lead in golf’s oldest major, posting a 5-under 66 at crispy Carnoustie. It was by far his best round in the championship, beating the 1-under 69 to close last year’s T-54 finish at Royal Birkdale. It was just the third time in 11 rounds he has broken par in the United Kingdom.
The performance was vastly out of character for the two-time PGA Tour winner, who came into the championship a collective 19 over par and hadn’t shown much game since finishing runner-up to Bubba Watson in the WGC-Dell Match Play Championship.
“I’ve swung it terrible all year,” said Kisner, whose last six starts produced three missed cuts and nothing better than a T-52 at the Fort Worth Invitational.
He fixed that with instructor John Tillery and struck the ball superbly at The Greenbrier only to see his putting desert him. Last week he grinded over the putting, adjusting his ball position forward to correct a push to the right. He needed 22 putts on Thursday at Carnoustie. Not many. Too bad his ball striking started to leave him down the stretch.
“Weird game,” he said flatly.
“If I have 22 putts the next three days, I bet I'll have a pretty good shot.”
Kisner had a good shot in a major just last August in the PGA Championship at Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte. He led by a stroke after 54 holes, but couldn’t quite bring it home when the course turned nasty – although not “Carnasty” nasty – the final day. He closed with a 3-over 74 to end up T-7.
What did he learn that week?
“Everybody’s really good at golf,” he replied.
He hadn’t considered what he learned about himself. He explained that he only hit one bad shot down the stretch. Then he added, “I love myself under the gun and down the stretch. So, I’m looking forward to that opportunity.”
A win would put him on more equal footing with his housemates this week. Kisner is part of a group staying in adjacent houses. The occupants include major winners Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Jimmy Walker, Jason Dufner and Zach Johnson. Only he and Rickie Fowler have yet to break through.
Other than idle chatter about how to play Carnoustie, the boys mostly have been engaging in some backyard soccer, apparently either oblivious to the fate that befell Rory McIlroy in 2015 – when he missed the last two majors after turning an ankle while kicking a ball – or simply having too much trash-talking fun to care.
“I just try to smash Duf in the face,” Kisner said with a wry grin.
Should he be around the lead come Sunday, Kisner said he wouldn’t be inclined to stay on the bench.
“I’m surprised the highlights haven’t ended up on Instagram,” he said. “They’re hilarious.”
Well, it’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt. Or has a chance to claim the Claret Jug.