LOUISVILLE — The leaderboard at the 96th PGA Championship looks great, full of star-studded names like Rory McIlroy, Rickie Fowler, Phil Mickelson, Jason Day, Louis Oosthuizen, Henrik Stenson and… Bernd Wiesberger?
Somebody call security.
Who is Bernd Wiesberger and what is he doing trying to win the PGA?
Good questions. He’s 28, an Austrian golfer, which is somewhat similar to being a Jamaican bobsledder, he’s won a couple of times in Europe and he has played his way into the major championship rotation. This is his sixth appearance in a major and the second time he’s made a cut.
And, oh yeah, this is the first time he’ll be playing in the final twosome on Sunday, one shot out of the lead held by No. 1-ranked Rory McIlroy.
All that glamor on the leaderboard and Wiesberger, who is effectively unknown in the United States, is threatening to win it.
You’re sure he’s going to gag it up Sunday and wilt under the major championship spotlight? Well, he could’ve done that today if he was going to do that. Instead, he played a bogey-free round and birdied the final three holes to give McIlroy a scare. They weren’t ordinary birdies, either. They were all of the kick-in length variety. He stiffed shots at 16 and 17, then nearly pitched in for eagle from just in front of the 18th green. It was impressive stuff, even if some pressroom golf writers were still busy cracking jokes about his name.
“Bernd Wiesberger? I think that’s what they served me in the hotel restaurant last night — a burnt Wiesberger… If Bernd Wiesberger married Coco Crisp, he’d be Bernd Crisp… You know what I’m expecting Sunday afternoon? Bernd toast!”
When asked about some of the unusual pronunciations of his name he’s heard on the first tee, he declined to mention any. “I’m not going to say those because then I’ll hear them all the time tomorrow,” he said with a light laugh. “Be creative. I’m sure there will be creative guys out there tomorrow.”
Wiesberger is fair-haired, has an easy laugh and a soft voice and seems surpassingly pleasant. He was born in Vienna but grew up in a small town 90 minutes away. His father owned a sport shop that was near a golf course that opened and by the time Bernd was eight or nine, he started hitting balls at its range and playing golf. Yes, he’s a skier — isn’t that almost mandatory in Austria — and while he broke his collarbone goofing around on the slopes in 2003, he rates himself a single-digit handicapper on skis. Put another way, “I’m not going to fall down unless somebody else runs me over,” he said with a chuckle.
Of Austria’s population of eight million, Wiesberger estimated that there are only 100,000 golfers in his home country.
“I would reckon that about 90,000 of them would be watching TV now,” he said. “At least, I hope so.”
Austria’s most famous athlete, at least to Americans, is Olympic downhill skier Franz Klammer. Peter Kostis, a CBS golf commentator, is one of Klammer’s friends and stopped by to say hello to Wiesberger on the range this morning and told him that Klammer sent his best wishes.
“That was very nice because I know Franz is a keen golfer,” Wiesberger said “He always plays in the Dunhill Links. So I’m sure Franz is rooting, as well.”
Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson were Wiesberger’s favorite golfers when he was growing up. He was paired with Phil in Saturday’s third round and his 65 was two strokes better than Mickelson’s 67. Mickelson is tied for fourth with Jason day, one shot behind Rickie Fowler and three behind McIlroy.
“Phil was really nice with me today,” Wiesberger said. “We had a good couple of chats and a couple of laughs, it was never uptight. It was really relaxed.”
The Austrian played a very solid round of golf, missing only two fairways and two greens. He birdied the short par-4 fourth hole from six feet, hit it to three feet for another birdie at the ninth and caught a flier from the left rough at the 12, carrying a 6-iron shot 210 yards to eight feet from the cup for a third birdie.
He played conservatively on the next three holes, he said, because of the pin positions, then he stepped on the last three holes for clutch birdies that made him a serious threat to win on Sunday.
Can a little-known Austrian who is ranked 70th in the world really take down Rory and win a major golf championship?
That will be answered Sunday. Until now, Wiesberger’s biggest golfing feat was winning the Lyoness Open, a European Tour event in his home country, and holing a 30-foot birdie putt on the final green for a three-shot win. He followed in the footsteps of Markus Brier, the first Austrian golfer to win that event.
The PGA Championship is a different level, of course, but the easy-going Wiesberger seems relaxed and imperturbable.
“I have it in me,” he said. “I know I can perform on the big stage. I have been a bit disappointed with the way I’ve played at the U.S. Open and the British Open, where I thought my game was in a good spot but I couldn’t pull it off.”
He was asked what it’ll be like to be in the final pairing Sunday with McIlroy and his answer was a fresh breath of honesty.
“Well, I’ve not been in contention in a major championship so I don’t know,” he said. “I’ll just try to enjoy it as I did today. I’m friends with Rory and I’m sure it’s going to be a nice situation. From now on, it’s just a bonus, really.”
Up next — Sunday’s finale. Can an unknown Austrian waltz to victory or are we going to be served Bernd toast? Either way, it’ll be fun to watch.