PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Kevin Kisner is starting to get comfortable in his upscale surroundings on the PGA Tour, but the experience is about to ratchet up another level.
As the No. 18 player in the world and the No. 2 points leader on the PGA Tour, the Aiken golfer's fraternity of peers can be a little intimidating. On Thursday and Friday at PGA National he was paired with former Masters winners Phil Mickelson and Adam Scott in the Honda Classic.
"I've been in this pairing (status) all year so I'm getting used to it," Kisner said. "It's fun. Those are the guys you want to be playing with. Those are the guys who are winning the majors and in the hunt coming down the stretch on Sundays. It's fun to see where your game is compared to their's."
The next seven weeks, however, will be a very new experience for Kisner. He'll be playing in a pair of World Golf Championship events for the first time before making his debut at the Masters Tournament in April. The stakes are higher in this world class.
"You kind of feel like a rookie all over again," Kisner said. "It's different thresholds or levels – whatever you want to call them – on the tour and when you get into this level you've got to get comfortable."
Prior to this week's tournament, Kisner played only once in the last five weeks on the West Coast swing. He skipped every event in California for the first time in his five full-time seasons on the PGA Tour, preferring not to let his confidence erode on the poa annua greens that have never suited him. He'd only made four cuts in 12 prior starts in California, never finishing better than 39th.
"I could afford to do so and play the places I want to play and not places I have to play," he said. "I don't do well when I hit a putt and it doesn't go where I think it should. So I decided to not do that this year. I think I've made a total of about 20 grand in my career on the West Coast so I'll just stick to over here."
Setting a preferred schedule is the kind of luxury Kisner never had before he made $5.61 million in the past 12 months, won his maiden tour event at Sea Island and climbed comfortably inside the world's top 50. After years of grinding week-to-week on several tours just to maintain status, the freedom takes as much getting familiar with as the elite company he keeps.
"Not playing three or four in a row so much," he said. "I have to get myself accustomed to feeling a touch rested."
Kisner has made the most of his recent free time trying to get prepared for tournament that means to the most to him – the Masters. After plenty of pleasure trips to Augusta National with his Georgia team and member friends over the years, he's been putting in some working sessions on the fabled course and mined the insights of local member Jeff Knox. He recently spent two consecutive days playing nine holes each with the intent of learning as much as he could of the intricacies of the course with Knox showing him places to miss for certain hole locations and some of the trickier putts that tend to fool most Masters rookies.
"I can't thank Jeff enough for the time he's spent with me," Kisner said. "I just picked his brain on every green. He's probably sick of me calling him. He was awesome. Probably just do it a couple more times before the week starts."
In the meantime he's trying to hone his game in four starts over the next five weeks, including Doral, Bay Hill and the WGC-Dell Match Play in Austin, Texas. The Florida swing has long been the traditional launching pad for Masters prep, and a windy, watery PGA National is a good test to start out with.
Kisner shot a 2-over 72 on Thursday, far from a crippling score in the conditions. It included a "bone-headed" double bogey on the 16th hole when he hit an ill-advised "media shot" from a thick lie that failed to carry even half of the water hazard.
"When it plays like that and every shot is testing your game, it gets you kind of ready for the majors," he said. "It's a good place to come see what you're doing and what you need to work on.
"I'm just kind of using this week, I have both my short-game coach and swing coach here working on things we think we need to get ready for Augusta. Worked on them today and it didn't work out, so I need more work on them."
It's all prelude to the big show in April, where his 22-month old daughter, Kate, will caddie for him in the Par 3 Contest and he plans to try to play with friends Zach Johnson and Bill Haas.
By then, Kisner will have completed all the steps into golf's upper class.
"Hopefully I'm in this era for awhile," he said.
This article was written by Scott Michaux from The Augusta Chronicle, Ga. and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.