It’s not easy to explain Kevin Kisner’s match play brilliance, but the evidence is becoming overwhelming.
Kisner reached the WGC-Match Play final for the third time in his career this week, a feat that puts him in the same league as really just one other person: Tiger Woods. Woods reached it four times, but his match play days are likely in the rear-view mirror now. Kisner this week was just adding to his already illustrious career.
The inexplicable nature of his success comes in part because golf media keep asking Kisner, “What gives?” and he just keeps calling himself an underdog. We get swept up into forgetting that he’s a top 40 player on the planet.
Before his rollercoaster match with Adam Scott, he described it bluntly: “That’s the way I’ve been my whole life. I’m 5’10” and 160 pounds; I’m pretty much an underdog out here.” (At 23-6-1 in this event over the years, we’re going to use different word than underdog moving forward, no matter how much Kisner wants to use it.)
But if Kisner’s motto is to invoke the underdog mentality, what can an underdog do in match play? “It gets tiring whenever you’re in the fairway and on the green every time and you hoop a few putts,” Kisner said before his Elite 8 matchup. “They get sick of that quickly.”
Or in other words, they get annoyed. Annoyed has been Kisner’s word of the week, and just about every other week at the match play event. The way he plays is shorter than other players, but focused directly on accuracy. Should that really make sense at the big, beefy golf course that is Austin Country Club? It’s easy to get caught up in the long bounding drives of Dustin Johnson or Scottie Scheffler, but remember, this course was designed by Pete Dye. Mr. Dye, the creator of torture chambers such as TPC Sawgrass and Whistling Straits, where trouble awaits just about everywhere. There’s plenty of that at ACC, too, and Kisner avoids most of it by just playing his game.
Moments before Kisner started his final match of the week, Paul Azinger explained what “annoying” golf looks like on the NBC broadcast. “By that he means put it in the fairway, hit first into the green, just keep the pressure on.”
Work your way to the green, but do it at your pace. John Wood, the walking on-course reporter following the final match, has watched Kisner work in multiple matches this week. He wouldn’t call it a gamesmanship-type pace, but it’s slower than normal, and plodding. Kisner plays to his strengths, and is great in the moments where you can “annoy” your opponent. Like hitting it close while they wait to size up a wedge shot. Flipping the advantage, or at least the perception of an advantage. “I try to get my opponent to think about me and not his game,” he said.
When you hit it further than Kisner and have to watch him hit it close, or make putts first, it can certainly increase the theoretical pressure in your mind. Saturday night, as he sized up his opponent for Sunday morning’s semifinal, Kisner kept repeating his motto. “[Corey Conners] hits it longer than I do and stripes the hell out of it. All I’ll try to do is annoy him with my putter.”
And then before his championship match, “I want to keep staying annoying out there and see what happens.”
He did it on the first hole of the Scheffler match, too. Tee shot into the fairway, shorter than Scheffler’s. Hit it first, and hit it close. Kisner pitched his ball inside four feet, closer than Scheffler. Pressure, pressure, pressure.
Of course, Scheffler made his 9-footer for birdie. This guy is pretty good, too. But nothing about it was comfy. Nothing about playing match play with Kevin Kisner is comfy.