What the hay: South Carolina’s Kevin Kisner struggles at U.S. Open

In this file photo, Kevin Kisner reacts after misses a putt. The Aiken, S.C. native shot a 4-over 76 in the third round of the U.S. Open.
In this file photo, Kevin Kisner reacts after misses a putt. The Aiken, S.C. native shot a 4-over 76 in the third round of the U.S. Open. USA TODAY

For Kevin Kisner, the real 117th U.S. Open began early Saturday. He didn’t have to wait long to discover that things would be different.

On Erin Hills’ par-5 opening hole, a 608-yarder that played on average to slightly less than par through the first two rounds, Kisner’s tee shot settled into a side-hill lie in the rolling fairway. And then …

“I just pulled it, and it rode the wind out there.” Meaning into the long, nasty fescue rough areas that line most holes. From there, the Aiken native required a handful of shots to get to the green en route to a double bogey – a definite no-no on a par-5.

Things wouldn’t get a lot better for Kisner, who even with a well-played par save at the 18th – another par-5 – finished at 4-over 76, his worst round after a 74-70 start in this, his fourth U.S. Open. Even that final hole failed to improve his mood.

“The give-a-(bleep) factor was pretty low at that point, which made it a lot easier,” he cracked.

Having seen three rounds on this first-time U.S. Open venue, he basically couldn’t wait to put Erin Hills in his rear-view mirror.

“What am I looking forward to (Sunday)? Getting home; how’s that?” he said with little apparent humor. “Father’s Day; just grab as much money as I can and go home. Sound good?”

Kisner, and much of the field, have had no love for that fescue rough, which he said “just grabs your club so bad in your backswing, you’ve got no chance when (the club is) coming down. There’s just too much luck involved.

“You get going in that hay, and you can’t get out of it. It’s hit or miss if you’ll get a decent lie. I’ve seen guys hit it on the green from there, and I’ve seen guys not able to hit it at all.”

That was the story of Kisner’s day, especially on a back nine with three bogeys. He wasn’t alone; the Erin Hills course that torpedoed such favorites as Irmo’s Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy and Jason Day after 36 holes continued to wreak havoc on some of the game’s best. Moments before Kisner finished with a valiant par-save at the par-5 18th, 2016 Open champion Jordan Spieth turned in his own 4-over 76.

To Kisner’s credit, he rebounded from that opening double bogey with a birdie at the par-4 second hole, and followed a bogey at the third hole with another birdie at No. 4, which had played the course’s second-toughest through the first 36 holes.

But then, he said, “You get refocused pretty quick(ly) when you look at the next shot and see all the trouble out there. You can’t fake it out here; if you hit it in the hay all day, you’ll shoot 100. You’ve got to stay pretty focused just to get it around.

“It’s tough, long, and there’s tricky breezes, and some pin locations are on the sides of hills.” Kisner shrugged. “That’s just what their (USGA) thing is, so that’s cool.”

Still, to be fair to the USGA (and who doesn’t want to do that?), Erin Hills played its toughest Saturday in part because of overnight rains that dumped .91 inches on the course, softening it and making it play even longer than its listed 7,818 yards. Before assuming Kisner blamed all his Saturday woes on the course setup, here’s the rest of the story.

“I can’t make as many mistakes as I have,” he said. “I could be playing fine if I was doing the things I normally do well.”

Indeed, based on his season coming to Erin Hills, Kisner probably ranked among a second tier of players (after the Johnson-McIlroy-Day favorites) who would’ve been expected to do well this week. Three weeks ago, Kisner won the Dean & DeLuca (formerly the Colonial) for his second career victory, and already has six Top-10 finishes, including at such stout layouts as Pebble Beach (tie-10th), Bay Hill (tie-second) and Muirfield Village (tie-sixth).

“I’ve played nicely all year and gave myself a lot of chances to win,” he said. “But obviously, I haven’t done that here. I’ve got to start playing better in the majors.”

To realize what most observers believe is his potential, he does. Take his play on Erin Hills’ four par-5 holes, where players expect to make up ground; Kisner is 3-over par through three rounds, with a lone birdie. “That’s pretty bad,” he agreed.

“I haven’t driven it well, not wedged it close enough – dumb stuff,” he said. “That’s why I’m tied for 60th instead of top-10.” His best U.S. Open finish is a tie for 12th in 2015 at Chambers Bay.

Late Saturday, more than a dozen players were within two shots of the lead heading into today’s finale, including Greenville’s Bill Haas. Other than, perhaps, second-round co-leader Rickie Fowler, few were names you expect to see in contention for a U.S. Open.

Kisner hopes to see his name up there – someday. But he knew it wouldn’t be this week.