AUSTIN, Texas – Over the next few months, experts will yammer on about how this player or that player is built for match play, and sometimes this is true.
Ian Poulter seems as if he was created in a lab to play match play – well, that, and to torture American galleries at the Ryder Cup – and in another lifetime Paul Azinger carried the flag for the United States. Match-play players are gritty and stubborn and unrelenting.
But those in the halls of power for the American teams don’t really believe that. If they did, Kevin Kisner wouldn’t have watched the last two American team events from his couch.
Kisner is arguably the red, white and blue’s best match-play player and yet Jim Furyk, the ’18 American Ryder Cup skipper, took a pass. Ditto for Tiger Woods in ’19 for the Presidents Cup.
Kisner wouldn’t tell you he should have been on those teams. That’s not his style. Where he’s from, telling people how good you are isn’t what you do. But his record in the format speaks loudly enough.
In ’19 when he won the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, he beat Francesco Molinari in the semifinals when he was still Francesco Molinari. The Italian was just months removed from his perfect week at the Ryder Cup and had recently won the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
Before his ’19 triumph, Kisner finished runner-up at the ’18 edition and after two scrappy matches this week at Austin Country Club he remains unbeaten and on a collision course with Matt Kuchar to decide who from their stacked group advances to the weekend.
Kisner doesn’t like match play; he lives for it.
“I love it. That's the whole reason I play. If it's not worth grinding then I don't want to be out here,” he said following his 2-and-1 victory over world No. 2 Justin Thomas on Day 2.
Kisner is now 16-5-1 at the WGC-Match Play and he was undefeated at the ’17 Presidents Cup (2-0-2) in his only start for an American team as a professional.
“That's the most fun I've probably ever had playing golf was playing team golf,” Kisner said of his Presidents Cup experience.
As for being passed over by the last two U.S. captains, Kisner will tell you that if he really wanted to be on those teams he should have qualified and that’s not up for debate. But it’s also not up for debate that he deserved to be picked. Both things can be true.
Steve Sticker is the U.S. Ryder Cup captain this year. Six players will automatically qualify and Stricker will have six picks. Kisner is currently 16th in the standings.
On a captain’s check list Kisner hits a lot of boxes, including playing well with others. At the Zurich Classic, a two-man team event he plays with good buddy Scott Brown, he’s finished runner-up (2017) and tied for fifth (2019). He’s also very much no-nonsense and would easily fit into any team room.
But most of all, he’s a dogged competitor with a demeanor that was made for match play.
“I really enjoy the one-on-one competitive nature of the event,” he said. “I really like knowing what I have to do on every shot compared to a four-day event. I kind of get lost in the motions sometimes when it's a Friday morning or Friday afternoon and everything's not going perfect. I think you got to grind all 18 holes and that keeps my head in the game.”
Yet instead of picking Kisner, Woods went chalk with his picks for the Presidents Cup, selecting Nos. 9 Tony Finau, 10 Gary Woodland, 11 Rickie Fowler, 12 Patrick Reed and 13 Tiger Woods. Kisner ranked 14th on the final list.
A year earlier, Furyk selected Finau, 15th on the final Ryder Cup points list, over Kisner, who was again 14th. Kisner beat Finau on Day 2 of that year’s WGC-Match Play along with European Poulter (8 and 6, no less), Alex Noren and Bernd Wiesberger on his way to the championship match.
But none of that seemed to matter.
Thursday was quintessential Kisner. He relentlessly took a 4-up lead through 10 holes against Thomas, who is just two weeks removed from his dominant performance at The Players Championship, and withstood a late rally to extend his winning streak in the event to eight matches.
“He's a tough competitor. He's not going to ever give anything away,” said Kuchar, who will play Kisner in Friday’s decisive final pool-play match. “He's a grinder, a bulldog, he's a guy that's going to always be in every hole.
“Shoot, certainly when you're on a team you love having a guy like that on your team, knowing that that guy's giving you everything he's got on every hole.”
It’s a lesson Kuchar learned in ’19 when he lost to Kisner, 3 and 2, in the championship bout. Let’s hope it’s a lesson American captains have finally figured out.