Note to 2020 American Ryder Cup Captain, Steve Stricker: the U.S. has a new match-play king, and his name is Kevin Kisner.
One year removed from getting absolutely obliterated by Bubba Watson in the championship match of the 2018 WGC – Dell Technologies Match Play, Kisner mowed down a gauntlet of PGA elites on his way back to the championship match, but this time, the resilient 35-year-old defeated two-time 2019 PGA Tour winner and former Match Play Champion Matt Kuchar by a 3&2 score.
Kisner’s day, which ended with his third career PGA Tour victory, began in impressive fashion when he shockingly defeated the red-hot reigning Open Champion Francesco Molinari in the semi-finals, 1-up.
Kuchar joined Kisner in the championship match by nipping breakout star Lucas Bjerregaard, the 27-year-old Dane who upset Tiger Woods in the quarterfinal, 1-up, in the other semi-final match.
Kisner started the week with a blip, losing his first match in group play, 2-up, to Ian Poulter – one of the best match-play golfers of all-time. But then went 6-0 the rest of the week to claim his first WGC title.
On his way, he knocked off Tony Finau and Keith Mitchell to finish group play, got the better of Poulter in a sudden-death tiebreaker to advance to the Final 16 bracket, where he dominated Haotong Li before knocking off Louis Oosthuizen in the quarterfinals. Then came the semi-final victory over Molinari and the championship triumph over Kuchar.
“I was thinking out there it might be the hardest one just because you have the physical aspect more than any other week,” Kisner told the Golf Channel immediately following his victory.
“It was grueling, definitely with the winds, the temperature today. Overall it was a long week, but I prevailed… and World Golf champion.”
Going into last season’s Ryder Cup, which was a disaster for the Americans, Kisner was on the short-list of captain’s pick candidates, but was passed over for all four slots by American Captain Jim Furyk.
Given the prowess the 35-year-old Kisner has shown in match play format over the past two years at Austin Country Club, 2020 Captain Stricker may want to make an early note, although if Kisner keeps this form going, he will not need to rely on a captain’s pick.
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Matt Kuchar (23) 1-UP over Lucas Bjerregaard (50)
Kevin Kisner (48) 1-UP over Francesco Molinari (7)
Francesco Molinari (7) 4&2 over Lucas Bjerregaard (50)
Kevin Kisner (48) 3&2 over Matt Kuchar (23)
HOW KEVIN KISNER WON THE WGC-DELL MATCH PLAY
Despite an impressive run to his second consecutive final four, Kisner was a considerable underdog to Molinari, who had been the best golfer in the tournament up to that point, and has undeniably been one of the world’s five best golfers over the past 12 months.
Despite a lesser profile, however, Kisner jumped right out to a 1-up lead after a birdie on the first hole. Molinari took the next two holes to go 1-up himself, but that would be the only time he would hold the lead in the entire match; with a par on 4 and a birdie on 5, Kisner jumped back into the lead.
The two battled back-and-forth, but once the match was all-square through 11, Kisner used birdies on Nos. 12 and 14 to take a surprising 2-up lead. Still up two with three holes to go, Kisner’s lead completely evaporated when Molinari took holes 16 and 17, squaring the match going into the final hole of regulation.
Kisner parred the final hole, which ended up being enough to win as Molinari shockingly three-putted from 25 feet to post a bogey and lose the match.
Molinari has historically been a poor putter, but had made large improvements in that area in 2019, as he ranks 24th on Tour in strokes gained: putting.
In the championship match, Kisner was able to overcome the anxiety created by last year’s 7&6 drubbing at the hands of Bubba Watson in the championship match, winning the first hole against Kuchar with a birdie. The match was all square for only one hole on the front nine, with Kisner leading the rest of the way into the turn, as he and Kuchar won two holes apiece on the front nine.
When Kuchar sent his tee shot on the par-3 11th hole into the water, he double-bogeyed to fall 2 back of Kisner. A miscue on the 15th green by Kuchar then put Kisner 2-up, but he would only need one more hole to claim the championship, clinching the title by sinking a 28-foot putt on 16 to win 3&2.
Over the 16 holes played, Kisner was even-par while Kuchar played the same 16 holes in 3-over, not a phenomenal performance by either, but Kisner was a clear winner.
WHAT IT MEANS FOR KISNER
Kisner had not been especially impressive over the first half of the 2019 season, but this win obviously changes everything. In 10 starts on the season, Kisner had made nine cuts, but produced just one top-10 finish (a T7 in the wrap-round season’s RSM Classic). His eight other finishes in the money produced nothing higher than a T22.
Most of his game has been solid this season, but he’s been abysmal around the greens – ranking 196th on Tour in strokes gained: around-the-greens. He showed little weakness in that area this week in Austin, however.
This win should greatly boost Kisner’s confidence going forward, especially since he’d developed a reputation of not being able to close tournaments – a reputation which looked especially well-earned after the WGC: Match-Play final last year, plus a poor final round at the Open Championship after he had held the 54-hole co-lead, and a difficult weekend at the 2017 PGA Championship after he had been just one stroke off the 36-hole lead.
The victory in Austin also jumps Kisner well up the Official World Golf Rankings, from 50th position to 25th. His career high was 14th early in the 2016 season.
KISNER’S 2019 PGA TOUR SEASON
Cuts Made: 10
Wins: 1 (WGC-Dell Match Play)
Additional Top 10s: 1
Money: $2,403,340 (12th)
Points: 838 (12th)
World Rank Before/After: 50th/25th
“Yeah, so last year I felt like I rushed around to get ready to play in the second match. I ran around in eight really fast, ran back out. Tried to go through my whole normal routine in an hour to get ready, and that’s just not feasible and how much golf you played.
“I hung out, took a shower, chilled out, got some treatment on my body and really went to the range at 2:05, and teed off at 2:25.
“I just went and hit 20 balls and went to the tee. I think that greatly helped my mental side of the game as much as anything. I wasn’t overhyped for it and just tried to go play a casual round of golf.”
– Kevin Kisner, WGC-Dell Match Play Champion
REST OF THE FINAL FOUR
Kuchar was disappointing in the championship match, but the runner-up finish keeps a sparkling record in the event, highlighted by a victory in the 2013 edition. Strangely, Kuchar was been atrocious in his singles matches in the Ryder and Presidents Cups, but feels very comfortable in the WGC set-up.
Kuchar moved past Xander Schauffele into the No. 1 position in the current FedExCup Standings, and with two wins on the current season, he is unlikely to be overlooked at The Masters in two weeks.
Molinari, by far the highest-ranked golfer who made the final four, will be kicking himself for that untimely three-putt on 18 to lose to Kisner after he had been dominating the week, but he bounced back nicely in the third place match, dispatching Bjerregaard by a 4&2 score.
Molinari birdied four of the first six holes to jump to an early 3-up lead that Bjerregaard was barely able to eat into. He played hole Nos. 10-16 in a birdie-free 1-over, but still won three of those holes as Bjerregaard seemed to run out of gas.
As for Bjerregaard, this was a phenomenal week for a man who may have been the least-known player, at least to American fans, in the entire field. He was impressive all week, but what will be remembered most, by far, is his 1-up take-down of a confident Tiger Woods in the quarterfinals.
Bjerregaard has two career victories in Europe, but this was only his fifth career start in the U.S., with the first of those two coming in the 2014 and 2015 U.S. Opens. Now a career-high 43rd in the OWGR, he is now anything but an unknown.
Kisner met with the media in the press room Austin Country Club. Here are a few pulls from the back and forth.
1. THE MEANING OF VICTORY
2. BEING LEFT OFF THE RYDER CUP TEAM
3. TALKING MONEY
Read the three questions here.
WHAT’S IN THE BAG
Kisner relied on a impressive tee-to-green game to take down Molinari and Kuchar to win his first WGC title. The 35-year old South Carolinian won in Austin playing a bag of Callaway and Titleist gear.
Read WITB here.