CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA – Merely as a point of reference, you should know that two years ago Rory McIlroy shot 21-under par at Quail Hollow Club to win the 2015 Wells Fargo Championship.
Twenty-one under par.
At the same place – not exactly the same golf course – where just getting to the finish line may determine who wins this bruising slog of a PGA Championship.
If you’re wondering what’s happened to the season’s final major, typically the most player-friendly of the major championships, you’re not alone.
“The setup has been too tough for a PGA to be honest,” said Webb Simpson, a past U.S. Open champion whose home sits just behind Quail Hollow’s seventh tee.
McIlroy, who shot both 62 and 61 on what now seems like the quaint version of Quail Hollow, sounded as if he surrendered after a Saturday 73.
“I can’t see a good score for me out there,” McIlroy said.
But enough of that.
As golfers like to say, everyone has to play it and someone is going to win.
It won’t be Jason Day, who could have been a contender until he finished with a quadruple-bogey 8 at the treacherous 18th that was induced by a terrible decision to play a “Hey, y’all, watch this” second shot from pine-tree jail.
The fact of the matter is Kevin Kisner, who is as tough as steel wool, will carry a one-stroke lead over Hideki Matsuyama and Chris Stroud into the final round Sunday with Justin Thomas and Louis Oosthuizen hanging close enough to believe they are just 18 holes away from winning the Wanamaker Trophy.
“It’s the type of golf course you don’t have to go out and make birdies,” Oosthuizen said.
Not this week, though they help in the same way a winning lottery ticket helps.
From the outset, Kisner has handled Quail Hollow’s raw-boned demands more consistently than any other player. He’s played the course for years, having relatives who are members, and a scouting trip a month ago helped familiarize him with the recent changes.
He’s felt the edge returning to his game thanks to some swing work with coach John Tillery and with it came the boost in confidence that’s necessary to perform on a major championship stage, particularly one as unforgiving as Quail Hollow.
Standing over his second shot on the par-4 16th hole Saturday afternoon, Kisner was 10-under par for the championship. When he walked off the 18th green almost an hour later, he was 7 under.
“It feels easy until you snipe one in the water and then it feels hard again,” Kisner said.
A yanked approach shot into the water at 16 was the first big mistake. A poor club choice going into the 18th green was a second mistake, minimized by a fortunate bounce off a bridge over the greenside creek.
“I had a chance to put a lot of people out of the tournament and didn’t do that. Now it’s a dogfight,” Kisner said.
And a slow one.
It took the final threesome more than 5½ hours to play the third round, a gruesomely slow pace. Throw in sticky, smothering humidity and temperatures in the upper 80s and the beautiful game looked and felt more like a slow roasting at times.
Kisner has never finished in the top 10 of a major championship but he has a toughness and self-assuredness that largely define him. He may not win Sunday but he’s not likely to scare.
Only one player among the top 15 – Oosthuizen – has won a major championship and he will start two behind Kisner.
Hideki Matsuyama, carrying the weight of a nation as he attempts to become the first Japanese winner of a major championship, is one back thanks to Kisner’s late struggles but he is fighting his swing this week. That’s a dangerous trait on a course trimmed by jailhouse rough.
“The worries about my swing showed up in the way I played,” Matsuyama said after a Saturday 73.
If Kisner is a mild surprise atop the leaderboard, Chris Stroud is a shocker in the final pairing on Sunday. One week ago, Stroud had not qualified for the PGA Championship. Then he won the Barracuda Championship last Sunday, scrambled to make travel arrangements to Charlotte and the man they nicknamed ‘Mr. Positivity’ when he played college golf at Lamar could pull off a stunner.
ADDITIONAL READING: Watch as Belligerent Moose Chases Golfer
How will he approach the biggest day in his professional career?
“Don’t mess up the streak, like Kevin Costner says in (ital)Bull Durham(end ital), one of my favorite movies, don’t mess up the streak,” Stroud said. “I have the same everything I have last week. I have the same swing thoughts as last week, I have the same everything. I have the same routine warming up. I’m not going to change anything.
“I’m not going to practice after I’m done here like I’ve done the last five weeks. I’m going to go back and rest, get some good dinner, go shower. … It’s just a dream come true to be here.”
One day to find out how the dream ends.