By Billy Watkins
Kevin Kisner’s troubles on the golf course this year have been unlike anything he’s ever experienced.
“I just started hitting my drives off the planet,” he said Thursday, the opening day of the Sanderson Farms Championship at the Country Club of Jackson.
Kisner shot a 5-under 67 and stands three shots behind leader Chesson Hadley.
“I’ve been looking forward to this golf course,” Kisner said. “I love it. Suits my eye off the tee. Love the greens. And I’m excited about where I stand after one round.”
Kisner, 39, grew up in Aiken, S.C., played golf at the University of Georgia and is one of the more popular players on tour. He loves to hunt hogs and deer and fish for bass.
But golf is how he provides for his wife and three children, and he’s done so quite well with more than $27 million in career earnings since making the PGA Tour in 2011. He’s won four times.
Suddenly, his game went off the rails — primarily his driving — early this season. He missed 6 of 14 cuts and withdrew from two other tournaments.
Kisner has a fiery Type A personality — “to a fault,” he grinned and admitted — and that only complicated matters.
“I kinda want to be a fixer all the time,” he said. “I want to hurry up and fix what is wrong and move on. But I couldn’t fix it, and the more I tried the worse it got. At the Travelers (in late June), I was done before I ever teed off the first round. I knew it and everybody else knew it.”
Finally, he decided to step away from golf for a bit. He took off two months and only played “maybe about four times,” he said. He sought advice from others who had gone through similar rough patches, including longtime pro Steve Stricker.
He switched back to a driver he began using in 2017, the Callaway Epic Speed.
“The time away totally helped,” he said. “But it wasn’t like (my driving) was good when I got back. I had to work through it, and since the middle of August I’ve really started seeing some results.
“It’s tough not playing well physically and then mentally just not wanting to be there. Now, I’m excited to be here, excited to work on my game and see progress. Days like today make it all worthwhile.
“Now it’s just relentless perseverance and keep trying to gain progress, not perfection.”
A man of his word, Sweden’s Ludvig Aberg showed bundles of stamina by shooting a 5..-under 67.
Four days earlier, Aberg was helping team Europe roll over the U.S. in the Ryder Cup in Rome.
The 23-year-old explained that he had already committed to play in the Sanderson Farms before he was chosen to the Ryder Cup squad. He felt the right thing to do was honor the commitment.
Aberg had by far the largest group of fans following him Thursday. He is fully exempt on the PGA Tour after finishing No. 1 in the PGA’s University Rankings. Aberg played at Texas Tech.
On a cloudy, pleasant day CCJ’s course surrendered some good rounds. Hadley grabbed the lead with a bogey-free 64. A 36-year-old native of Raleigh N.C. who played golf at Georgia Tech, he is seeking his second win on the PGA Tour.
Henrik Norlander and Brandon Wu are one shot back. Former Sanderson Farms winner Peter Malnati (2015) stands two shots behind along with six others.
Kisner is tied with 15 other players.
Mississippians are still in the hunt. Chad Ramey of Fulton shot 2-under. Hayden Buckley of Belden and Davis Riley of Hattiesburg both are at 1-under.
Tbe tournament runs through Sunday. The winner will take home $1.476 million. Children’s of Mississippi will again benefit from the tournament. In 2022, the tourney donated $1 million to the only kids cancer hospital in the state.