For the second straight year, former Georgia Bulldog golf team member Kevin Kisner found himself in the finals of the WGC Match Play Championship against a familiar competitor.
Last year it was fellow ex-UGA golfer Bubba Watson, who used his considerable distance advantage to put a 7&6 beating on Kisner in the title match.
This time, Kisner drew a player whose style of play matched his own, and whose alma mater provided a more suitable opponent.
Former Georgia Tech golfer Matt Kuchar was Kisner’s opponent Sunday in the finals, and Kisner did not have to concern himself with being out-driven by huge distances on most holes.
In an evenly-matched battle for the championship, Kisner won the first hole and never trailed, scoring a 3&2 victory over Kuchar for the biggest win of his professional career.
The win over Kuchar capped a week that did not begin so positively for Kisner, a 35-year-old lifelong resident of Aiken, S.C., and a member of Georgia’s 2005 NCAA Championship team along with fellow PGA Tour winners Chris Kirk and Brendon Todd.
In his first match in pool play, Kisner drew British Ryder Cup stalwart Ian Poulter in a rematch of a 2018 quarterfinal that Kisner won by the lopsided margin of 8&6. An even more motivated than usual Poulter birdied the last two holes in the 2019 rematch to win 2-up, shooting a 6-under 66 on the Pete Dye-designed Austin CC layout to defeat Kisner 2-up.
Kisner shot 68 in the defeat, and began his second match against his group’s top-seeded player (Tony Finau) with the knowledge that it is rare in the pool play format adopted in 2016 for a player to lose his opening match and advance to the knockout rounds.
When Kisner fell 3-down after seven holes to the big-hitting Finau, he appeared headed for a Friday return home to Aiken. But he took advantage of some loose play by Finau to even the match after 10, and played the last eight holes in 3-under to win 2-up.
Thanks to a surprise win over Poulter that same day by fellow ex-Bulldog Keith Mitchell, making his Match Play debut, the four players were all 1-1 going into the final day of pool play, the only one of the 16 groups in which all four players were even going to the third day of play.
Kisner birdied three of his last seven holes to hold onto a slim lead and defeat Mitchell 2&1. Had the Poulter-Finau match ended in a tie, Kisner would have won the pool outright. That match was tied after 17 holes before Finau hit a wild tee shot on the short, par-4 18th and made bogey, handing Poulter the victory and a spot in a sudden death playoff with Kisner for the right to advance to the knockout rounds.
Thanks to a birdie on the third extra hole, Kisner got past Poulter and into the round of 16, where he rolled past China’s Hao Tong Li 6&5 after leading 5-up after seven holes. That put Kisner in the quarterfinals later Saturday afternoon against Louis Oosthuizen, one of the hottest players in the tournament.
Kisner began the match by ripping a 357-yard tee shot to drive the opening hole, and went 1-up after his opening eagle. With four birdies on the front nine, Oosthuizen tied Kisner at the turn and was 1-up with four holes to play. Kisner won the 15th with a scrambling par and took the lead with a sand-save birdie at the par-5 16th before closing out a 2&1 victory by hitting his tee shot on the par-3 17th inside two feet.
That put Kisner in the semifinals Sunday morning against Italy’s Francesco Molinari, the most dominant player in the field to that point and a recent winner at Bay Hill.
Both players started fast with three birdies each on the first seven holes, and the match was tied after 11 before Molinari uncharacteristically made three bogeys in a 4-hole stretch starting at the 12th to fall 2-down. The defending British Open champion and 2018 Ryder Cup standout evened the match with birdies at 16 and 17, but 3-putted the 18th for bogey to give the match to Kisner, who made one conceded birdie and one bogey over his final 12 holes.
As he did in his quarterfinal win over Oosthuizen, Kisner jumped out to an immediate lead against Kuchar with a birdie on the first hole. He halved the second hole with a bogey after hitting his tee shot into a hazard when Kuchar missed a short par putt.
Kuchar managed a par for a half at the third after an errant tee shot of his own, and tied the match with a par at the fifth when Kisner missed the green from just over 100 yards and made bogey.
Kisner regained the lead at the par-5 sixth with a birdie, following an off-target lay up with a superb third shot to five feet for a winning birdie. Kuchar fell 2-down after a 3-putt from long range at the sixth, but trailed by only one hole at the turn when Kisner missed the green and bogeyed the difficult par-4 ninth.
Kuchar splashed his tee shot at the par-3 11th to go 2-down, but hit the par-5 12th in two for an easy birdie. Kisner matched that birdie after laying up, and went 3-up with three to play when Kuchar bogeyed the 15th.
Kuchar hit another outstanding second shot to reach the par-5 16th in two and was putting for an eagle from an inch farther out than Kisner was for birdie. Kuchar, who lost 1-up to Kisner iun last year’s round of 16, missed his 20-footer and Kisner drilled his for a half and a 3&2 victory, claiming the winner’s check of $1,745,000.
Kisner moved up from 50 to 25 in the World Golf Rankings, from 73 to 13 in the FedExCup standings and from 30 to 15 on the Presidents Cup points list. It puts him in position to return to the Tour Championship at East Lake for the fourth time in five years after missing out in 2018, and puts him on the radar for the 2019 Presidents Cup team after his 2-0-2 mark in his debut in 2017, which included a 2-0-1 record with Phil Mickelson as his team partner.
“The most fun I’ve probably ever had playing golf was playing team golf,” Kisner said after his victory Sunday. “I missed the camaraderie of team golf and being a part of it.”
Kisner’s previous team experience came in college, where he helped lead the Bulldogs to the 2005 NCAA title. But after he graduated in ’06, Kisner went more than a decade before his next experience as part of a team.
With his play in the Presidents Cup in 2017 and his showing in the Match Play the last two years, Kisner has established himself as one of the elite match play competitors in the game.
After struggling to retain his playing privileges following his first two seasons on the PGA Tour in 2011 and ’12, Kisner began to establish himself in 2014 after his second successful stint on what is now the Web.com Tour. He won in each of his two seasons there and placed 11th and 14th on the money list. He has enjoyed similar success on the PGA Tour starting in 2015, when he lost in three playoffs.
Kisner shot final round 64s at Hilton Head and the Greenbrier and a Sunday 69 in the Players, but lost in playoffs to opponents who still had some heroics left in them after 72 holes. He added a fourth runner-up finish at the outset of the 2015-16 season in a WGC event in China before scoring his first PGA Tour win in the RSM Classic at Sea Island GC.
He has added four more runner-up finishes since then – at Bay Hill and in the team event in New Orleans in 2017 with fellow Aiken resident Scott Brown, and in the Match Play and British Open last year. He shared the 54-hole lead at Carnoustie a year after he held the lead going to the final round in the PGA at Quail Hollow before tying for seventh.
Kisner collected his second PGA Tour title in 2017 at Colonial, and has displayed the ability to excel on courses that favor accuracy and precision over power.
“I just don’t have the tools that some guys have as far as distance,” Kismer observed. “My type of game suits me well in certain conditions, and this is one of them.
“A win is always huge. That’s what we play for – wins and trophies. But we want to be in the FedExCup Playoffs. We want to have a chance in Atlanta to win the FedExCup. And it’s going to do a huge deal for the rest of my season to have a chance in Atlanta, and to hopefully play on Tiger’s team in Australia.”
Kisner pointed to his playoff win over Poulter as the key one for him in golf’s longest week.
“Losing to Poulter put me behind the 8 ball huge, I felt like. Winning that playoff I felt catapulted me to having a chance to win the golf tournament.”
Kuchar received some nice consolation prizes for finishing as runner-up in the Match Play. He took home $1,095,000 and regained the top spot in the FedExCup standings, which he earned with wins in late 2018 in Mayakoba and early ’19 in Hawaii.
After winning his first two matches, Kuchar played Jon Rahm on the final day of pool play, needing at least a tie to advance. The match was even after 14, and Kuchar needed birdies on 14, 15 and 16 for halves to stay tied. Rahm took the lead with a fourth straight birdie at 17, but Kuchar birdied the 18th for a half, advancing with a 2-0-1 record.
The St. Simons Island resident defeated Englishman Tyrrell Hatton 4&3 and Sergio Garcia 2-up on Saturday, getting some help from a brief tantrum from the occasionally petulant Garcia, who did challenge Kuchar late in the match with a string of birdies on the back nine.
Kuchar needed five birdies to take down Tiger killer Lucas Bjerregaard of Denmark 1-up in the semifinals, going birdie-birdie on 16 and 17 to break a tie after 15 holes.