Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Defending champ Kevin Kisner draws tough challenge in WGC-Dell draw

Kirk Bohls
Austin American-Statesman
Kevin Kisner, right, holds his trophy presented by Michael Dell, CEO of Dell Technologies, after he won the 2019 Dell Technologies Match Play tournament at the Austin Country Club.

Defending champion and two-time consecutive finalist Kevin Kisner returns to the World Golf Championship-Dell Match Play this week and is immediately greeted with, well, a Group of Death draw.

Welcome back to Austin, Kevin.

Kisnser won the 2019 event, the last time it was played after last year’s tournament was canceled because of the pandemic, and finished as runner-up to Bubba Watson in 2018.

But the random draw for 64 of the top 69 golfers in the world did him no favors Monday when he was placed in a foursome alongside reigning Players Champion Justin Thomas (second seed), 2019 Dell runner-up Matt Kuchar (52) and 2016 Dell runner-up and always tough Louis Oosthuizen (22).

More:Bohls: Masters champ Dustin Johnson cream of the crop for Austin's Dell Match Play

Kisner said he looks forward to the challenge and added that he and Thomas are great buddies and Thomas’ caddie, Jimmie Johnson, is one of Kisner’s longtime friends.

Asked how much fun he figures to have with that group, Kisner said, “I would have way more fun if all three of them just forfeited the match, to be honest. But, no, it's fun. If you want to be the best, you got to beat the best, and JT's playing arguably the best in the world right now, so it will be a lot of fun. Obviously the other two players are all longtime Tour stalwarts that have been out here and played great, had a lot of success, so I’m looking forward to seeing how my game steps up against all of them.”

Of course, Kisner is used to the disrespect card, if you will. He was seeded only 48th in 2019 when he made his way through seven rounds to win and is ranked just 34th this week. So he should have plenty of motivation.

His grouping drew the most attention Monday and signaled a difficult path to Sunday’s championship of the Dell event, which is being hosted by the Austin Country Club for the fifth time. Group play begins on Wednesday morning and runs three days before the playoffs start on Saturday with two rounds each of the two weekend days.

But he’s got company when it comes to steep challenges as one would expect from a field that boasts 13 major champions who have 20 such titles.

As good as Thomas is, the former PGA Champion has advanced out of group play just once in four previous tries at ACC but reached the semifinals before losing to eventual champion Bubba Watson in 2018. He was also winless in three matches and eliminated in 2016 when he was in the same group as Jordan Spieth.

Jordan Spieth, who has had a major resurgence this season with three top-five finishes in his last four starts, finds himself in Group 15 with Matt Fitzpatrick (15), former Oklahoma State product Matthew Wolff (20) and Canadian and Valero Open champion Corey Conners (37). In four career starts in the event at Austin Country Club, the former Texas star advanced out of his group in 2016 and was defeated by Oosthuizen, 4 and 2, in the round of 16.

More:Jordan Spieth rises to top 64 in world, commits to WGC-Dell Match Play tournament

“There’s just a deep, tremendous amount of talent in golf right now,” Spieth said. “You’ve got guys in their 40s who are winning the biggest tournaments in the world and guys in their 20s playing well. It’s cool. New guys come in every year and want to sustain their careers for 20 years. That’s what we all want to do.”

No. 1 seed Dustin Johnson has accomplished that better than most. He’s won 26 tournaments worldwide and, at age 36, begins play Wednesday as the top seed, but what else is new? 

He holds that status for the fourth consecutive year and is shooting for his seventh WGC title, second all time behind only Tiger Woods, who unfortunately won’t be back after his serious car accident in Los Angeles. Johnson’s group includes Kevin Na (28), Robert MacIntyre (41) and Adam Long (61).

Besides Spieth, two other Longhorns find themselves in the field. Both have extensive experience on the tight ACC tract.

Scottie Scheffler, in his second year on the Tour and seeded 30th, received a treacherous draw himself. He’s joined by Xander Schauffele (6), 2016 Dell champion Jason Day (44), who won in the tournament’s initial start at ACC, and Andy Sullivan (57).

More:This year's American-Statesman's Cap10K is on — in a race at your own pace kind of way

“It’s a good group,” Scheffler said Monday. “I’ve actually never played golf with Andy, but I’ve seen the other two play. It’ll be a fun group. My caddie is good buddies with Jason, and Xander is a friend of mine, so it’ll be a good group to compete in.”

Scheffler has two top 10s in his last four events, but hasn’t been happy with his play until lately.

“I got off to a really slow start to the season in the fall,” he said. “I was playing terrible, not swinging it well. I feel like the last month, month and a half, my swing is starting to come around and felt like the swing has really turned the corner.

Dylan Frittelli hasn’t played well of late and, despite his 69th world ranking, qualified as the final entry in the Dell field after Brooks Koepka withdrew and had right knee surgery. He’s locked in with Tony Finau (12), Jason Kokrak (29) and Will Zalatoris (40).

Frittelli has added eight pounds of weight, reduced his body fat by 5%, gotten stronger and more focused. The native South African has shown glimpses of his game with a top-five finish at the Masters and a top-25 start at TPC Sawgrass.

He is almost as excited about the new roof over his head.

“Three years ago was the last time I played, so super excited for some match play golf in front of a home crowd and familiar surroundings,” said Frittelli, a former teammate of Spieth’s and the Longhorn who sank the winning putt for Texas’ last national championship in 2012 to beat Justin Thomas and Alabama. “The last time I played here (in the Dell), I actually had just bought a house here, but I was staying with friends. It’s pretty cool to sleep in my own bed.”

Play begins early Wednesday morning, and no one will be more excited than Kisner. 

The 37-year-old South Carolinian has three PGA victories, but none since the 2019 Dell. He became the father of a third child recently and reduced his schedule to just five tournaments in the last 15 weeks, but he plans to play five of the next six events.

“It's not been up to the level that I want it to be,” Kisner said of his game. “I’ve spent a lot of time with the family, kind of more important at this stage in life. But this is my stretch right here. So hopefully this is another turning point for me to get the game rolling.”