CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Back down against Hideki Matsuyama and Jason Day, two of the best in the world, on the biggest stage he’s ever played?
No, Kevin Kisner wasn’t about to do that.
He hasn’t folded in 15 years.
The slight country boy from Aiken, S.C., was a freshman on the stacked Georgia golf team in 2002 when he sauntered onto the range one afternoon. Kisner wanted to take a few swings, so he snagged some balls from Ryan Hybl, the Bulldogs’ team leader, who was in the next stall.
After plowing through half of the shag bag, Kisner was satisfied with his session and turned to leave.
“Hey, go get me some more balls!” Hybl barked.
Kisner stood his ground.
“Nah, I ain’t about to get you no balls.”
Hybl, whose brother played quarterback at the University of Oklahoma, tackled Kisner, flipped him over and pinned him to the ground.
“Listen you little son of a b----,” Hybl said, leaning in close. “You’re gonna go get me some more balls.”
Kisner begrudgingly grabbed another bag. It was one of the few times in his life that he conceded defeat.
Georgia coach Chris Haack was reminded of this story Saturday night, after Kisner stared down Matsuyama and Day, showed his big-game chops and took a one-shot lead into the final round of the 99th PGA Championship. At 7-under 206, Kisner is one clear of Matsuyama and Chris Stroud.
Kisner has been unapologetically confident ever since he was a junior player. It’s one of the main reasons Haack recruited him.
“He exudes confidence,” Haack said. “He doesn’t feel like anyone can beat him if he’s on. He feels like he can beat anybody and he’s always had that attitude. Whether he can or not, if you have that attitude, it always helps you.”
To many fans at Quail Hollow, Kisner was the third wheel Saturday with Matsuyama and Day.
Kisner doesn’t hit it miles off the tee. He doesn’t hit towering iron shots. He doesn’t have a dazzling short game. But what he lacks in pop he makes up for in a self-assuredness that borders on cockiness.
Georgia has produced the most successful pros over the past decade, and Haack points to his policy of forcing his players to qualify for every event. The message is simple: Nothing is given. Tee times are earned.
Kisner was one of three players (along with Brian Harman and Russell Henley) who never missed a tournament in four years – even during his junior season, when he endured a miserable slump. That spring, in the SEC Championship, Kisner was blown off the course and shot 93 at Sea Island. (Haack believes it’s the one and only time one of his players shot in the 90s.) For an hour afterward, Kisner grinded on the range, looking for answers.
“I’m closer,” he’d tell Haack. “I’m closer.”
The next day, Kisner got up and down from everywhere and shot 73 – a 20-stroke improvement.
“It was probably the greatest 73 I’ve ever seen,” Haack said. “It should have been an 85.”
With the NCAA Championship on the horizon, Haack contemplated making a lineup change. But rather than crush Kisner’s confidence, Haack kept him in the starting five, and Kisner rewarded his coach’s faith with an opening 65 that propelled the Bulldogs to the NCAA title. He became Haack’s first four-time All-American.
Still, there was some question whether Kisner's game (and his below-average length) would translate to the PGA Tour.
After an unspectacular start to his career, Kisner has developed a reputation as a big-game hunter. During the 2014-15 season, he forced (and lost) three playoffs, none more dramatic than The Players, where he came within a millimeter of capturing one of the biggest titles in golf. He finally broke through at the end of that year, at Sea Island (no 93 this time), and then added another title this spring at Colonial.
“When he gets in big situations, he doesn’t feel like, What am I doing here?” Haack said. “He thinks, I belong here.”
And Saturday was his biggest situation yet – a share of the 36-hole lead at Quail Hollow, which was supposed to be, at 7,600 yards, a bomber’s paradise where Kisner had no chance. Instead, he went bogey-free for 24 consecutive holes between the second and third rounds and built a three-shot advantage on the back nine Saturday.
That’s when he made things interesting.
On 16, in thick rough left of the fairway, Kisner yanked his tee shot into the pond, leading to a double bogey. A bigger mistake, though, was trying to launch a 7-iron over the false front on the final green. He overcooked it, and his ball caromed off a walkway and into a horrific, downhill, downgrain lie. His only option was to hack out 60 feet past the flag and two-putt for bogey.
Watching back home in Athens, Haack noticed how Kisner didn’t slam a club or mutter an F-bomb down the stretch, even when the bogeys piled up. His confidence never wavered.
“That’s one of his strengths,” Haack said. “He’s cold-blooded. He’s a silent assassin.”
Indeed, in difficult conditions, Kisner clipped Matsuyama (73) by one shot and topped Day (77) by five.
If nothing else, he once again showed his peers that he won’t back down Sunday.
“He’s had to prove himself all along the way,” said his caddie, Duane Bock. “There’s not a chip on his shoulder or anything like that. But he believes when he’s swinging well and putting well, he’s as good as anybody.
“So why be scared? That’s his mentality, and that’s what he does.”