Golf is a confidence game, and Kevin Kisner has never lacked the core materials to succeed in it.
Through a junior career in Aiken competing with South Carolina peers like current world No. 1 Dustin Johnson to a college career at Georgia never missing a start and winning an NCAA title, Kisner never felt intimidated or out of his depth on a golf course.
Now 33 and a decade into his professional career, Kisner is discovering new layers of the confidence that has carried him to two PGA Tour victories and among the top 25 players in the world. His one-shot victory over some of the game’s heavyweights last week on one of golf’s most storied venues at Colonial has forced Kisner to reassess what he might be able to accomplish in the game.
“If you told me 10 years ago (that) in 2017 I’d have two wins and six seconds on the PGA Tour, I’d have taken it,” Kisner said before getting off to another quality start in this week’s Memorial Tournament. “I really … I didn’t wake up (Monday) and think, ‘Man, I’m a better player now than I was before I teed off on Sunday.’ I love the direction my game is going. I love where my team is. I love where I am as a family man, person. I just want to keep doing what I’m doing to get better and have another great five or six years.”
After spinning his wheels trying to gain traction on the PGA Tour, Kisner found himself on the brink of superstardom in 2015 when he ran up a string of four runner-up finishes, three of them in playoffs including the Players Championship. His breakthrough win at Sea Island at the end of 2015 helped move him as high as No. 14 in the world early the next season.
But 2016 didn’t pan out quite as well as Kisner hoped.
“The game is kind of a roller coaster itself,” he said. “So as difficult as it was riding this stretch last year – I wasn’t playing well; I didn’t feel good about my game; it was a bunch of 35th-place finishes – you know at some point if you keep grinding it’s going to come back.”
Kisner has missed only one cut in 13 starts in 2017 and his name has been a fixture on leaderboards with nine top-25 finishes or better. He seemed to be cruising to victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March before stumbling to another runner-up, but he didn’t let the misstep deter his building momentum. Nor did another runner-up with neighbor and friend Scott Brown in the new team event in New Orleans.
Then he closed the deal at Colonial on Sunday, beating Jordan Spieth, Jon Rahm and Sean O’Hair by a stroke with a 5-foot par putt on the last. He led the field in driving accuracy and was second in greens in regulation – a combination that typically fares well on a shotmaker’s venue like Colonial.
“You start questioning if you’re going to win again after a while,” Kisner admitted. “So everybody was questioning if I was ever going to win. Then I win, and then everybody questions if I was ever going to win again. I knew the way I was playing I was going to give myself a ton of chances to win.”
The victory likely secured Kisner a place on the U.S. Presidents Cup team that will take on the international team outside New York in September. U.S. captain Steve Stricker got a good view of Kisner playing together in the first two rounds at Colonial.
“I like what I see out of him,” Stricker said. “He’s a little bit of a bulldog. Kind of reminds me of Corey Pavin a little bit. A little bit of a chip on his shoulder seems like. He makes putts. Great short game. I didn’t see any weaknesses in his game the first couple days. … I enjoy being around him. He has a good attitude. Would be great in the team room.”
Said Kisner: “Strick called me a bulldog on Sunday, so I liked that one pretty good. I didn’t know if he was talking about where I went to school or how I played.”
Regardless, Kisner’s first step into international team play would be another lift in his growing global profile. It’s the kind of stage that elevated former Augusta State star Patrick Reed to another level.
“Obviously a dream to be representing my country in any form or fashion,” Kisner said. “I think playing in New York City is going to be pretty kick ass, to tell you the truth. Having all those people on our side, and hopefully they’re as rowdy as ever, and I can make a lot of birdies.
“But I’ve still got a lot of work to do. I’m not guaranteeing them to myself until I’m told I’m on the team. I’m going to keep grinding, playing hard, working on things I need to work on. Just because I’m playing well now, doesn’t mean I’m going to be playing well then. So I need to keep working hard.”
Sitting 7-under and tied for eighth through 54 holes at the Memorial, Kisner is once again in contention on a Sunday. He almost won at Palmer’s Bay Hill, prevailed at Hogan’s Alley and would love to close the deal at Jack Nicklaus’ Muirfield Village.
“This tournament has a little extra special feel,” he said. “It’s Mr. Nicklaus’ tournament, so it’s a lot like Bay Hill, Mr. Palmer’s tournament.”
While Kisner has never had the power game that gets everyone’s attention, his “bulldog” personality and game is generating a following. And he’s not backing down from anyone as he enters the majors stretch of the summer playing his best golf.
“I’m just a competitor, is what I would self-describe myself,” he said. “I play the game because I beat other people at it and I like doing it. The whole reason I’m out here is to be in competition.
“Nothing on the golf course ever (has intimidated me). What have you got to be intimidated about? You have people fighting wars all over the world for us and we’re playing golf. Think I’m scared of Dustin Johnson because he hits it 350?”
In a confidence game, Kisner certainly has no reason to be scared.