CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – A year ago, Kevin Kisner flew home to America with the Claret Jug. Unfortunately, it didn’t belong to him. Another passenger on that plane had just won The Open Championship and was understandably very keen on sharing his happiness with others.
Kisner recently shared another flight with Jordan Spieth, this time to Paris to check out this year’s Ryder Cup venue. The Claret Jug was again in tow. And here in Carnoustie, Kisner is sharing a house – more like a compound – with Spieth, as well as five other players.
“He gave it back on Monday,” Kisner said. “It would be cool to return the favor and let him look at it a little bit.”
Kisner took his first step towards doing just that, shooting a 5-under 66 that boosted him to the top of the leaderboard. Meanwhile, Spieth fell apart late in his round, suffering a double bogey and two bogeys in his final four holes to finish with a 72.
It should make for some interesting conversation Thursday night with the five others in the two-house set-up – Zach Johnson, Jimmy Walker, Justin Thomas, Rickie Fowler and Jason Dufner. That’s a cumulative eight majors, although none for Kisner or Fowler.
“It’s not intimidating at all,” said Kisner, making his fourth Open start this week. “They’re all great people. That’s the best part about it. I mean, we’re out there playing soccer at night and just hanging out. Everybody is just really chill, and it’s a lot of fun to be around those guys. … It’s really cool just to hear what they have to say. Everybody’s sitting around at night scratching their head on what club to hit off of every tee.”
The soccer matches, evidently, are becoming quite legendary, if not exactly skillful. Kisner joked that they keep having to knock on neighbors’ doors when the soccer balls are kicked astray. He also noted that Dufner is the all-time goalie, allowing the others to go three-on-three.
Kisner basically has one objective.
“I just try to smash Duff in the face,” he said.
On Thursday at the par-5 sixth, he smashed a driver and 3-iron that left him 40 feet from the pin. He made the putt for eagle to move under par for his round, then rode the momentum for the rest of his round, including a string of three consecutive birdies on the back nine.
Kisner needed just 22 putts Thursday – although he had several other strokes with a putter after missing half of his greens in regulation. Still, it was a welcomed sight after his previous start two weeks ago at A Military Tribute at the Greenbrier, where he ranked 70th in Strokes Gained: Putting among the 77 players who made the cut.
“I felt like my ball position got too far back at the Greenbrier,” said the two-time TOUR winner from South Carolina. “I was missing every putt to the right. So I came here Monday and worked really hard on my speed, which is always the hardest thing for us to get accustomed to here.”
Kisner has not been a contender in his first three Open appearances but now seems comfortable on a links-style course. He also knows if his putter stays hot, he might very well turn the tables on Spieth during the plane ride home.
“If I have 22 putts the next three days,” he said, “I bet I’ll have a pretty good shot.”
Defending champion Jordan Spieth had a solid round going into he decided to pull a 6-iron instead of a 5 on his approach shot from 202 yards at the par-4 15th. The shot came up short and plugged into a pot bunker. The resulting double bogey derailed his round, and he bogeyed two of his last three holes for a 1-over 72. Said Spieth: “I just had a brain fart.”
A trio of South Africans are among the early contenders, but it may not be the three you expected. Erik Van Rooyen (age 28) and Zander Lombard (age 23) each shot 67, while Brandon Stone (age 25) followed up last week’s win at the Scottish Open with a 68. However they finish this week, it will be interesting to follow their progress going into next year’s Presidents Cup, especially with countryman Ernie Els captaining the International Team.
It appears that late/early group may be on the wrong side of the draw this week. Of the final 12 groups teeing off Thursday, there were no players under par. Compare that to the first 12 groups to tee off – there were 11 players who finished under par, led by Kevin Kisner’s 66. Meanwhile, the only group in which all three players finished under par was the threesome of Jon Rahm (69), Rickie Fowler (70) and Chris Wood (70). That threesome teed off just after 10 a.m. local time in the 20th group of the day.
One bad hole derailed some big names Thursday. Justin Rose (72) suffered a double-bogey at the par-5 14th after finding a bunker. “Really kind of the one birdie hole you look forward to on the back nine,” Rose said. “So that really took the wind out of my sails a little bit.” Phil Mickelson (73) hit a poor tee shot at the par-3 16th that led to a double. “Otherwise, I played pretty well,” Mickelson said. Dustin Johnson (76) was already having a rough day, and it got worse with a triple bogey at the deadly 18th when his tee shot bounced out of bounds. Marc Leishman (72) had gone out in 3 under before suffering a double at the 10th with a poor second shot. “It jumped on me, which I wasn't expecting it to,” Leishman said. “I was trying to hit a little trap draw, and it didn't come out like that.” Two-time U.S. Open champ Brooks Koepka (72) bounced back from two doubles, including at the eighth when he took three shots to get out of a greenside bunker. His first attempt was off an awkward lie when he had to swing from his knees. “I probably should have made sure I got it on the green instead of trying to get too cute with it,” Koepka said.
Erik van Rooyen grew up on the Western Cape in South Africa and didn’t plan on playing collegiately in the U.S. until late in his high school career a decade ago. He sent his resume to a multitude of schools, with Minnesota among those that showed interest. He went on a visit – no, it wasn’t in the winter – and liked that the Golden Gophers were a top-25 golf school. “I wanted to play for a team that’s competitive and where I wasn’t sort of going to be the star playing coming in,” van Rooyen said. “I want to learn and have people push you as well.” He turned pro in 2013 and now seems to have found his game – he was the 54-hole leader two weeks ago at the Irish Open (before a closing 74 left him T-4) and started strong Thursday with a 68.
Englishman Matthew Southgate is a member at Carnoustie and has about 50 rounds under his belt. He dreamed of playing an Open at the course, but the week didn’t start like he expected. Said Southgate after his opening 2-under 69: “I always have this sort of vision in my head the little old Scottish fellow would meet me at the front door and call you, ‘Mr. Southgate’ and you would feel all excited and stuff. It wasn’t. It was a young American girl sort of flashy. ‘Let me show you around.’ And I thought, I don’t really need showing around. I’ve been a member since I was 16. It kind of threw me a little bit. Once I went in the clubhouse and met a couple of members, I settled down. And even more so when I got on the golf course, and the first round has lived up to everything.”
Rory McIlroy (69) – Hit just 4 of 15 fairways but said it didn’t really matter. “As I said at the start of the week, it's very playable from not in the fairway. As long as you don't hit it in the fairway bunkers, you're always going to have a shot at the green.”
Zach Johnson (69) -- On the tee at the 352-yard par-4 third, Johnson opted to pull … an 8-iron. It was a first for him. “I’m not embellishing it one bit – I’ve never hit an 8-iron off a par 4,” the 2015 Open champ said. By the way, he made par on the hole.
Henrik Stenson (70) – The 2016 Open champ missed last week’s Scottish Open due to an injury to his left elbow. That left him behind on his prep work and he’s still not 100 percent. “Just trying to do the best with what we have and what we can do, and we’ll see where it takes us,” Stenson said.
Justin Thomas (69) – The reigning FedExCup said his gameplan entering the tournament was to rely heavily on his irons off the tee. But with the rough down, he ended up using his driver six times, deciding the risk of rolling into a bunker was worth it. “There's times and pin positions that change that game plan,” Thomas said. “But today with it being like this out, we figured let's just kind of send it around here.”
QUOTABLEHe provides plenty of comedy for us this week.You drop the ball, and you can hear it. It's hard to get the tee in the ground. It really is.
He's almost like a mythical figure.I was eight back after the U.S. Open. I'm not really concerned.I just thought that somebody was really playing a joke on me.He's almost like a mythical figure.