01 Sep 2019

Kevin Kisner – Slow and steady wins the race

A self-confessed ‘pretty sarcastic’ guy with a laid-back demeanour, Kevin Kisner certainly has a hidden toughness, which was evident earlier this year when he won the gruelling WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play. Kisner, who last year was soundly defeated in the final by Bubba Watson, rediscovered his redemption in March to win the biggest title of his career so far. After losing his opening game to match play specialist Ian Poulter, Kisner beat Tony Finau, Keith Mitchell, Haotong Li, Louis Oosthuizen and Francesco Molinari before defeating Matt Kuchar 3&2 in the final. The 35-year-old from South Carolina became a member of the European Tour following his win and has been a mainstay in the top ten in the Race to Dubai ever since.

Kevin Kisner has come a long way since asking his father for a small loan to help him on his way in the early stages of his professional career, and almost called time on it before he achieved any great success.

“When I started golfing for a living, I had $16,000 bucks,” he said. “My dad gave it to me and I never asked him for another dollar. That’s probably the coolest part of my career – when I had to make putts when it mattered, starting at a young age. When you’ve got to make a putt to clear some money for the week to fill your car up and drive back home, it makes you a stronger person. So, money has driven me my whole life.”

Kisner used his father’s funds to enter events on mini-tours before progressing onto the Web.com Tour and then the PGA Tour. “You pay your entry fee on the mini-tour and go play,” he said. “I won my third tournament and doubled my money.” 

He banked over $1m for his win in the WGC-Match Play in Texas and is approaching $20m in earnings on the PGA Tour, but don’t expect him to splash the cash on anything too luxurious any time soon.  “I hoard my money like crazy, because I don’t know when it’s going to run out – and I don’t want it to run out because I don’t know how long I’m going to be able to make 10-footers,” he laughed.

Kisner turned professional in 2006 and after years of grinding away on the satellite tours he developed and improved enough to make it on to the Web.com Tour (now known as the Korn Ferry Tour) in 2010. He went on to earn his PGA Tour playing card for the 2011 season. 

However, he struggled to retain his card and was forced to go to Qualifying School to get his card for 2012. Again, he endured a tough year and back at Q-School he missed out on his card by just one place. 

‘I was ready to retire’

Finding himself back on the Korn Ferry Tour again for 2013 it was here he started to doubt if he had what it takes to make it on the PGA Tour, so he turned to coach John Tillery for help. 

“I was ready to retire,” said Kisner. “I was hitting shanks from the middle of the fairway. I’m very much a realist. I don’t lie to myself about where my game is. I knew my swing was very poor at the time, and I knew that the way I was hitting it, there was no chance I could play on a PGA Tour course and compete against that level of player on that kind of course set up. I had already been through that in my career and I didn’t want to do it again.”

‘On the right track’

Work began on fixing Kisner’s transition of weight at the top of the swing, which was causing his most hated miss – a block to the right. 

The changes made under Tillery’s eye helped Kisner hit a more penetrating and solid ball flight. “It was brutal work,” he said. “A lot of hours hitting in the bay, a lot of sweat, sore hands and club throwing and complaining, but I knew we were on the right track.”

The turnaround didn’t take long to produce effective results and later that year he finished 13th on the money list to earn his PGA Tour card for 2014. He went on to produce three top tens and successively retain his playing rights at the top level for the first time in his career. 

 In 2015, Kisner’s progress was clear for all to see as he played his way into contention numerous times, only to be denied in sudden death, becoming the first player since Horton Smith in 1937 to lose three play-offs in one season on the PGA Tour. 

Kisner came close at the RBC Heritage, the Players Championship and the Greenbrier Classic but finished empty handed on each occasion. 

Six-stroke victory at RSM

Disappointed but not down, he re-grouped and later that year (part of the 2016 season) he won his first title with a runaway six-stroke victory over Kevin Chappell at the RSM Classic, thanks to weekend rounds of 64-64. It was his 109th PGA Tour start and a sign of things to come. His second title came in 2017 at the Dean & DeLuca Invitational at Colonial CC in Texas, winning by one stroke ahead of Jordan Spieth, Jon Rahm and Sean O’Hair. Three months later he got into contention in a Major for the first time, leading after the first, second and third rounds at the US PGA Championship at Quail Hollow before a final round 74 saw him drop to a share of seventh. 

Firmly established on Tour, Kisner qualified for his Presidents Cup debut that year and forged a strong partnership with Phil Mickelson, winning two of their three matches together. 

Links golf suits his style

He started 2018 with great promise and after the disappointment of losing the final of the WGC-Match Play he again got into contention in a Major, this time at The Open at Carnoustie where his precise iron play and nerveless touch with the putter saw him enter the final day in a share of the lead. 

Kisner finished tied for second place as Francesco Molinari went bogey-free to win his first Major, but the American was pleased with how his game had held up in only his fourth start at The Open and acknowledged that the rolling nature of links golf suits his style.

“It wasn’t a bombers paradise where guys just send drivers out there and get away with it as much as they do in the States,” he said. “I love the aspect of getting the ball on the fairway and not having to pound driver on every hole. Plus, the greens are generally flatter so if you’re on the fairway, you’re going to get a lot of birdie chances.

 “The Majors and the way they’re sometimes set up somewhat fit me, because you don’t go out and shoot 7‑under every day. That’s more evident on longer golf courses. I like it when the ball is chasing, like it does at a links.”

Had Kisner got over the line at Carnoustie he would have been a shoe-in for the United States Ryder Cup Team at Le Golf National in Paris. 

However, he missed out on automatic qualification and was overlooked as a Captain’s pick due to the resurgence in form of veteran superstars Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods. The US team struggled on a course which favoured straight hitting against distance and Europe steamrollered the US to a 17.5 – 10.5 victory, with assistant captain Lee Westwood later noting that the narrow nature of the layout would have suited a no-frills, gritty player like Kisner. 

Taste of Europe

Indeed, the American might be best suited to European-style courses rather than the long and soft nature found week-in, week-out on the PGA Tour and he came over to play the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open in July at The Renaissance Club. Although he missed the cut in East Lothian, he finished 30th in The Open in Ireland and is well placed in the Race to Dubai.

As a European Tour member for 2019, don’t be surprised to see Kisner pop up at a couple of Rolex Series events in the coming months with nothing of note taking place stateside until after the DP World Tour Championship.

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