CHARLOTTE, N.C. – There’s a fine line between confident and cocky.
One man’s windbag is another’s winner; the trick is always remaining balanced in the razor-thin area between the two. It’s a road that Kevin Kisner has deftly navigated since he first picked up a club at storied Palmetto Golf Club in Aiken, S.C.
“He’s never been afraid of anything. When you have abilities like he has there’s no reason not to be confident,” said Tom Moore, the pro emeritus at Palmetto.
Along the way Kisner – dubbed “Kiz” by those closest to him – has never lost that edge. Not at the University of Georgia where he was a four-time All-American, not through a languid transition to the professional game, and certainly not on Sunday at The Players.
On the eve of the final round last week at TPC Sawgrass, Kisner was asked how he would deal with the pressure of competing for his first PGA Tour title on such a large stage. His answer was everything you need to know about the fourth-year Tour player.
“Everybody talks about pressure and nerves and all that, but we've been through it all. If we've gotten here, we've done Tour [Q-School], we've won tournaments,” reasoned Kisner, who was one shot behind 54-hole front-runner Chris Kirk at the time. “Just because it's a bigger stage doesn't mean we're going to suck all of a sudden.”
It’s why Georgia head golf coach Chris Haack was drawn to him, and young Kisner didn’t disappoint. During his freshman year in Athens, Ga., Kisner approached Ryan Hybl, a senior on the Bulldogs golf team, on the practice tee and started hitting out of the same shag bag.
“When the balls were all gone, Ryan told him, ‘Freshman, go get some more balls,’” Haack recalled. “Kiz was like, ‘I’m not getting anything.’”
The two ended up wrestling over the incident and the moment stands as a testament to Kisner’s competitiveness, although Haack was quick to point out how he evolved into the quintessential teammate.
During the 2005 SEC Championship, for example, Kisner was struggling with his game and began the week with a first-round 90, but Haack kept him in the lineup for the NCAA tournament because “He was always a good team guy,” he said.
Kisner helped lead the Bulldogs to the national title in ’05, rising to the pressure of the moment just as he did last week at TPC Sawgrass and in April at the RBC Heritage, where he lost to Jim Furyk in a playoff.
It’s all part of a unique “closer’s” mentality that made an average ball-striker such a dogged competitor.
“Kiz was my camp counselor when I was 12 when I went up to Georgia for a PGA golf camp and I remember him telling me, ‘You can’t play golf scared,’” recalled Russell Henley, who followed Kisner to Georgia and later onto the Tour. “He’s tough.”
He’s also cut from a vastly different mold than many of his Tour frat brothers.
When Kisner is at home in Aiken he can normally be found tooling around in a custom golf cart complete with speakers and a Bluetooth connection, or wandering through the woods looking for something to hunt or hook.
After another playoff loss at The Players, thanks in large part to Rickie Fowler’s historic finish that included three birdies from inside 7 feet on the par-3 17th hole on Sunday, those with lesser fortitude would have needed a timeout. Instead, Kisner just needed time in the woods.
On Sunday, he drove to his brother-in-law’s hunting camp in Georgia, dubbed “Duck Bottom,” to hunt hogs. There was no self-indulgent lapses or counter-productive second-guessing because that simply wouldn’t be Kisner’s style.
“I’ve always wanted the ball in my hand coming down the stretch,” Kisner said on Wednesday at the Wells Fargo Championship. “I felt like I’ve had it two out of the last three weeks.”
It was a similar message Kisner gave swing coach John Tillery a year and a half ago when the two first began working together.
“When he first showed up he just said, ‘Look, if you can get me to hit it where I can get in contention, I’m good when I’m in contention,’” recalled Tillery. “He felt that way when he didn’t have the results to show.”
The results, however, have arrived.
In 2013, Kisner ranked outside the top 100 in driving accuracy and strokes gained-tee to green. This season he’s 36th in accuracy off the tee and 50th in strokes gained-tee to green thanks to dramatically improved leg action and a much tighter swing that has eliminated the block that plagued him earlier in his career.
True to his word, Kisner has converted those technical improvements into tenacious finishes. At Harbour Town he rallied to catch Furyk with three birdies over his last five holes and added another on the first extra hole before losing in the second frame of overtime.
On Sunday at The Players, he was equally clutch with a birdie at the second playoff hole before Fowler closed him out at the fourth extra hole.
“One of these days I’m going to shoot 65 on Sunday and come up and somebody is going to hand it to me,” Kisner smiled on Wednesday.
Like objects in the rearview mirror, that future “Sunday” may be closer than it would appear. After another pedestrian West Coast swing – put bluntly, Kisner hates the West Coast – he has settled into a familiar early summer run, preceding his runner-up finishes with solid starts at Bay Hill and in San Antonio.
As he closes in on that elusive first victory Kisner’s legend grows, and not just the Twitter account created for his caddie Duane Bock’s massive calves. The confidence has always been there, and it seems just a matter of time before the championships follow.