CARNOUSTIE, Scotland — Kevin Kisner spent the night before Thursday’s first round of the British Open playing backyard soccer at a rental home with his housemates, a group that included five golfers with a combined eight major golf championships.
There was little golf talk, however. Most of the attention was focused on a sometimes comedic penalty-kick competition — more on that later — involving golf luminaries like Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas.
The laid-back atmosphere apparently inspired Kisner. He had never finished better than a tie for 54th in three previous British Opens, but Kisner finished Thursday in sole possession of the lead, at five-under-par 66, behind an early eagle and four subsequent birdies.
Kisner, a 34-year-old from Aiken, S.C., whose once-middling career has surged in recent seasons, credited his performance in part to the frat-house ambience of his accommodations: one of two side-by-side houses whose other tenants include Spieth, Thomas, Rickie Fowler, Zach Johnson, Jimmy Walker and Jason Dufner. Only Kisner and Fowler have not won a major.
“We’re just playing soccer and hanging out,” Kisner said. “Everyone is just really chill; it’s a lot of fun.”
Kisner finished one stroke ahead of Tony Finau, an American who finished in the top 10 at the Masters and the United States Open this year, and two South Africans: Zander Lombard and Erik van Rooyen, who was making his British Open debut.
Also in the top 10 were Johnson, Thomas and Rory McIlroy, all at two-under 69.
Tiger Woods seemed poised to join that group as he stood at two-under through 12 holes. But he stumbled with two bogeys in the next three holes and finished at even par.
Still, on the punishing and devilish Carnoustie Golf Links, Woods was in contention.
“I played better than what the score indicates, and I think it’s reasonable where I am,” he said. “I wanted something under par. I missed by a little.”
Woods played the round with black kinesiology tape on his neck that was visible just above his collar. He would say only that the tape was supporting something that was “bugging him” and insisted that it had had minimal effect on his play.
“Everyone acts like this is the first time I’ve been bandaged up,” Woods said. “I’ve been doing this for years. So, braces and bandages, just that this time it’s actually visible.”
Woods still finished ahead of several other prominent contenders. The reigning Masters champion Patrick Reed shot a four-over 75, and the world’s top-ranked golfer, Dustin Johnson, shot a 76.
Kisner, who started with the earliest wave of golfers on Thursday, left the course as the clubhouse leader just past noon, then proceeded to regale reporters with the humorous details of the previous evening’s soccer contest.
A soccer net in the backyard of one of the houses rented by the group spawned the idea of a penalty-kick challenge. Dufner, one of the more popular players on the PGA Tour, played goalkeeper for every shot. “Duff is the all-time goalie,” Kisner explained. But it was not necessarily because of his skill.
“He provides plenty of comedy for the group,” Fowler said.
Kisner insisted that everyone was athletically gifted.
“Except Duff,” he said. “No, I’m kidding. Duff is athletic, too.”
But Kisner was far more eager to tweak Spieth, the event’s defending champion. Asked if Spieth was good at soccer, Kisner answered: “Oh, yeah, absolutely — until he sends it over the goal and about four houses down, and we’ve got to go knock on neighbors’ doors for the soccer ball. We’re going to have to Amazon Prime a couple new balls to replace the ones we lost.”
If Kisner is the least bit superstitious, there is a good chance he was playing backyard soccer again Thursday night, hoping it would lead to more brilliant golf Friday.
Kisner was one over par entering the par-5 sixth hole, which he eagled with a long, twisting putt from across the green. He birdied four of the next 12 holes without a bogey, needing just 22 putts. That kind of performance on the greens was a surprise of sorts to Kisner.
At his last tournament on the PGA Tour, at the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia, Kisner said he had “putted so bad.” Most of his attempts at that event were drifting left of the hole, so he moved the golf ball back in his stance and, with some practice, his putting improved.
Kisner, like many in the field, also thought the Carnoustie greens, which have been dried out by a summer drought, were quicker than usual. Among the challenges for American PGA Tour pros at this event is adjusting to the usually slower greens on the British Open links-style courses.
“So far, the transition has been easier,” Kisner said.
But other modifications were necessary. The hard fairways meant 5-iron tee shots were rolling as far as 300 yards if they were downwind.
Most players eschewed their drivers in those conditions, but gauging the roll of tee shots and approach shots was tricky.
Spieth, who was at three under before recording two bogeys and a double bogey in the final four holes, said the winner of the tournament would be the player who executed the best before reaching the greens.
“This course is about the first two shots,” said Spieth, who called the greens flat and boring.
But he added: “There’s so little to them, and they’re so big that sometimes you’re kind of missing where these double breakers are. And they’re sneaking pins on the locations where there is a little bit to it.”
Kisner managed them well, and he was hoping to get further good fortune at Carnoustie from his friendship with Spieth. He mentioned that after last year’s British Open he had flown home with Spieth and the claret jug, awarded to the event’s winner.
“I spent a lot of time with Jordan and the claret jug,” Kisner said with a smile. “It would be cool to return the favor and let him look at it a little bit.”
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