Day Two at the Humana Challenge answered the burning question that I’ve been asking, as have many others: Who is Kevin Kisner? It turns out he’s just another immensely talented Georgia Bulldog, a four-time college All-American who teamed with Chris Kirk and Brendon Todd, among others, to lead UGA to the 2005 Men’s NCAA Championship. He was also my pro partner for the day. Glad he had a sense of humor.
On a morning that dawned 10 degrees chillier than the day before, my group was first off Number 1 on the Arnold Palmer Private Course at PGA West at 8:30 a.m. I hadn’t totally unshackled my nerves, but at least I was less stressed about the scoring procedures today. At round’s end the day before, I met with PGA Scoring official Colin Murray in the scorer’s tent. I was panicked, as my playing partners had long exited the area. Were our numbers right? Did we need our scorecards signed? After waiting out queries from Tour players Brian Davis and David Hearn, Murray patiently explained to me that amateur contestants keep their own score, and not to worry about keeping the other pro’s numbers. We didn’t even need to get our scorecards signed. It was up to my pro to keep track of our pro-am results, and as always, one pro scored for the other. I have to admit, it was pretty cool to report the results of each hole we played, Net/Gross Best Ball to an official scorer, who walked with us the entire round, and who relayed the numbers into scoring central. Also cool? Having a young man alongside for the duration as a standard bearer, with our four names on the board and updated scores every hole.
Perhaps I should have known a little more about Kisner. His stock is rising. He posted three top 10s on the PGA Tour in 2014 and started 2015’s wraparound season with a T4 at The McGladrey. It was obvious this 30-year-old could play. He shot 68 in the first round here, and birdied four of his first 11 holes in our round together. That helped his score as well as mine, bringing me back towards respectability in the Amateur competition. I wowed Kisner, fellow pro Daniel Summerhays and our other amateur Bill Strong, (same guy as the day before) with a high, drawing 7-wood at the tough, over-the-water par-3 5th, making 3 net 2, and toppled in a putt from just off the green at 10 that drew a smattering of applause from the two dozen or so spectators ringing the putting surface. Other than that, I didn’t accomplish a lot, though I hit the ball better than the day before.
I’ll say one thing about the courses in La Quinta: The mountain vistas are simply stunning—almost overwhelming. Even to this jaded traveler, it’s so much fun getting a ball airborne and watching its arc against the tall Santa Rosa Mountains and the blue sky above. I don’t hide my affection for my home desert of Phoenix/Scottsdale, but a 77-degree day as we had in the Palm Springs area today, especially in La Quinta, is something every golfer ought to experience before his traveling days are done.
The wacky finish at the host Arnold Palmer Private Course is a huge part of its allure. Holes 14 through 17 play along the edge of the mountains and feature five shots in those four holes that interact with a cement-lined canal. It’s really weird. You hike up into the rocks, where the tee boxes sit, and many times, the hole is darkened by shadow, with the mountains so close you can smack them in your backswing. Bighorn sheep are liable to pop down from the rocks and have a look, as they did on Thursday. 15 and 17 are two similar par-3s with narrow, hourglass-shaped greens. It’s very tough to get the ball close to those back pins. I needed an uphill six-footer for par at 15 to help our team, but left it on the right edge. At 17, I hit a soaring iron that connected with the gigantic rocks to the right, doinked off one of them and the ball was sent screaming across the green into the canal. The groan from the crowd, half pity and half amusement, told the story.
The par-5 18th is a gallant risk/reward closer, a fishhook around a lake with a long, diagonal green. A plaque some 215 yards out marks the spot where David Duval knocked it on the green with a 5-iron at the 1999 Bob Hope Chrysler Classic, on his way to eagle, 59 and the victory. With three massive spectator pavilions overlooking the green, it’s quite a spectacle. I nearly knocked it on the green—in three—but left myself with a horrible angle off a tight lie to a back-right pin. Guess what? I failed to get up and down.
It was a better day today. Still some tightness, but at least I knew what to expect. My caddie, Sandy, was a big plus in the positive mental attitude department. He helped remind me that we’re out here having fun. Sure, I wanted to play better, and score better. Yet, I here I was, way inside the ropes. I chatted up Kisner when the time seemed right. He lives on Palmetto Golf Club in a Aiken, S.C., a classic Alister MacKenzie re-design on the other side of the river from Augusta. I talked Utah sports with Daniel Summerhays, who didn’t have his best ball-striking round, yet showed his professionalism by jarring a fistful of four- to six-foot par-savers. Both guys were enjoyable partners, yet at the same time, I just wanted to stay out of their way. They’ve got a living to earn, families to feed. Trying to play good golf, and still be as inconspicuous as possible isn’t easy. My head was pounding, my neck muscles were clenched and I was constantly dry-mouthed. I can’t wait to do it again one more time, tomorrow, at venerable La Quinta Country Club.