He took the best Jim Furyk could offer a couple of weeks ago at the RBC Heritage and pushed the world’s fifth-ranked golfer to the brink before falling a couple of inches short. That’s not losing; the other guy won.
He took the best Rickie Fowler and Sergio Garcia could muster this past weekend at the Players Championship and battled that top-10 duo into twilight and extra holes before falling a couple of inches short. That’s not losing; the other guy won.
How best to describe Kevin Kisner, the Aiken native who suddenly commands attention on the PGA Tour? Whether “nerves of steel” or “responding under pressure” or another cliché works best, there is no doubt his star is rising.
In Charlotte this week for the Wells Fargo Championship, the scene of his tie for sixth last year, his confidence knows no bounds.
“Hitting the golf ball really solid, working it both ways, seeing every shot, hitting them,” he said. “It’s one of those stretches where you know you’re playing well, you’re hot so you better keep playing and do it as long as you can.”
Kisner, 31, is 44 under par his past three tournaments and has zoomed to 66th in the world rankings and 21st in earnings and FedEx Cup points after playoff losses in the RBC Heritage and the Players.
The Players “was impressive golf, obviously,” he said. “But that’s why we hit all those golf balls on the range for and practice for – to be in that situation. That’s the kind of stuff I live for, to be in the moment and to pull off the shots. That’s what we dream about.”
His dreams came true, all but the winning part. Still, making birdie on Harbour Town’s No. 18 to tie Furyk and matching that in the playoff before Furyk’s birdie on No. 17 is the stuff of a champion. And, my goodness, what can be said about the shots down the stretch and in overtime at Sawgrass except “well done”?
“I’ve always wanted the ball in my hand coming down the stretch, and I felt like I had it two of the last three weeks, and I’ve done everything I can,” Kisner said. “ ... At some point, I’m going to hit a bad shot under pressure. That’s just part of it. But the last four or five holes at the Heritage and the Players, I don’t think I missed a shot. I hit every shot like I wanted to, even the putts.”
He paused, then added, “I still can’t believe that putt on 18 (to win the Players in regulation) didn’t go in.”
Kisner, one of many outstanding players who honed their games in the South Carolina Junior Golf Association competition, sparkled at South Aiken High and the University of Georgia. He worked his way up the professional ladder, winning twice on the Web.com tour and is making his fourth year on the PGA Tour his breakthrough season.
He credits work with teaching professional John Tillery, well into its second year, with his rise. They’re working especially on ball-striking, a project that takes time and, Kisner said, “hopefully, we’re just scratching the surface of where we can go. ”
His competitive nature, which he says comes from his dad Steve, drives him to succeed. Whether it’s teaming with Dustin Johnson in four-ball events in junior golf or going head-to-head with Rickie Fowler with a prestigious championship at stake, winning is his target.
“I’ve won at every level, and I’ve always been good under the gun,” he said. “If I believe in myself and I know what I’m doing, I know I can do it. All that hard work for a year-and-a-half ... I’m starting to see some pretty good things. If I keep playing the way I’m playing, I’m going win one sooner or later.”
Stung by the near misses? No; more challenged.
Resting on his achievements? No way; he headed out for a Wednesday afternoon practice session with Tillery. Confident? Yes; he said, “I don’t see any reason why I can’t compete again this week.”
WELLS FARGO CHAMPIONSHIP
Where: Quail Hollow Club (7,562 yards, par 72), Charlotte
TV: Golf Channel (Thursday-Friday, 3-7 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday, 1-2:30 p.m., 10 p.m.-2:30 a.m.)
and CBS (Saturday-Sunday, 3-6 p.m.).