Kevin Kisner has contended deep in the final rounds to win the PGA Championship and Tour Championship the last seven weeks in his Southern comfort zone, but what really stokes his fire is on tap this week outside New York City.
The 33-year-old Aiken golfer is ready for the bright lights of the Presidents Cup.
“It’s a life-long dream to play for my country,” Kisner said last week at East Lake. “I’m a big America guy and to be able to play a team event is at the top of my list.”
Kisner doesn’t intimidate his world-class peers with towering tee shots, but he possesses the kind of intangibles that have made former Augusta State star Patrick Reed a standout on the international team stage. The clutch putting and never-say-die attitude that was on display as he attempted to go wire-to-wire in the PGA at Quail Hollow can make the former Georgia All-American a tough guy to beat head-to-head.
“I kind of like when the chips are stacked against me, so I’m going to thrive in that situation, I think,” Kisner said. “That’s why I’ve been working hard on my game, because I want to be confident in my game, and everything else will take care of itself after that. … I live for that situation and when I’m confident I feel like I can beat anybody.”
Kisner played well last week at East Lake, holding a share of the Tour Championship lead when he reached the back nine Sunday. A couple of bogeys on 10 and 11 forced him to rally again, but his bid got cut short with a water ball on the par-3 15th hole and he ended up settling for a tie for third place.
That kind of disappointment serves as motivational fuel for Kisner. A year ago at the start of the PGA Tour’s playoffs he was in prime position at 11th in the Ryder Cup standings to make a case for being one of Davis Love III’s captain’s picks for the 2016 matches. He would have been close to qualifying automatically among the top eight if his maiden victory at Sea Island had been counted in points.
However, a ho-hum string of T48, T46 and T39 in the first three 2016 playoff events worth quadruple points dropped him to 19th, and Love didn’t even invite him for a practice round with other potential picks on the eve of last year’s Tour Championship.
Was he offended by that snub?
“Probably, yeah,” Kisner said last year.
Does he know why he wasn’t invited?
“I have no idea,” he said. “I figure he’ll call me when he needs me.”
That call never came, and Kisner says now it wasn’t Love he was irritated with last September.
“More in myself that I didn’t play well enough to warrant a pick or make the team,” he said. “I had a perfect opportunity and played like crap in the playoffs.”
Kisner never had to sweat out receiving a pick from Presidents Cup captain Steve Stricker, finishing comfortably in seventh in points. He’s been more concerned all summer trying to get his game in shape to take on the International team at Liberty National.
“I’ve been playing pretty poorly (since the PGA) so I’m a lot more excited how I’m playing heading into it,” he said of his return to form at the Tour Championship.
Kisner hasn’t played in any Ryder Cup-style team events since his junior days, though he’s partnered well with close friends Scott Brown and Kevin Chappell in events like the Zurich Classic and Shark Shootout.
It’s likely we might see him paired with Chappell at some point this week. He wouldn’t reveal some of the closed-door strategies but conceded “I want to play with the bombers to see what it’s like to hit a wedge into every hole.”
Those who know Kisner believe he will be a huge asset for the U.S. team.
“He’s a bulldog – a golfing bulldog – scrappy and makes putts when he needs to,” said Jimmy Johnson, Justin Thomas’ caddie who has known Kisner since he was a little boy. “I told somebody this week I wouldn’t be surprised if he turned out to be the highest point-getter. Just his mental attitude toward that stuff. We’ll see. It’s his first one. We’ll see how he handles it.”
Kisner’s enthusiasm for busting chops and draining putts under pressure should serve him well in the team environment. So will knowing that after a long PGA Tour season, the only work week he’ll have left from the end of the Presidents Cup on Sunday until the winners-only event at Kapalua after New Year’s will be the RSM Classic Nov. 16-19 at nearby Sea Island, where he won in 2015.
He’ll spent most of the three months off with his 2-year-old daughter, Kathleen, changing diapers on his 3-week-old son, Henry James, and hosting his first Clays, Greens & Strings event Nov. 3 at Sage Valley, supporting his Kevin & Brittany Kisner Foundation to promote childhood health and education in the area.
“It’s the first time in 10 years I’m taking more than two weeks in a row off,” Kisner said.
But first, he’s got something to prove as a valuable member of Team USA.
“If I’m playing well, it’s going to be the time of my life,” he said.