Kevin Kisner and I competed in the Arnold Palmer Invitational Pro-Am. What I Discovered.
Kevin Kisner and I competed in the Arnold Palmer Invitational Pro-Am. What I Discovered.

Even though I was nervous at first, a day with one of the unfiltered stars of the PGA Tour was one for the record books, writes Gabby Herzig.

I thought I had everything under control when I stepped up to hit my first tee shot this week at the Arnold Palmer Invitational Pro-Am at Bay Hill Club and Lodge. In my mind, I was very sure of myself. Even though it was my first PGA Tour pro-am, nobody had to know that. “Pretend you were there,” they tell you.

Not so quickly.

No matter what I did, I couldn’t get rid of the crazy mix of nerves, excitement, and pure panic that was going on in my head. Mastercard, which is the title sponsor of the API, put me in a group with three other amateurs. At Tuesday night’s “Pairings Party,” we found out that we would be playing with Kevin Kisner, a four-time PGA Tour winner and all-around legend.

Maybe I had a right to feel crazy because I was about to spend five hours alone with one of the most popular players on Tour. As an old golfer with a 2.6 handicap, it’s totally fine that I messed up my first 10 swings on the practise range, right?

My calm exterior had to break, but it did so in a way I didn’t expect. Just after 1:10 p.m., the starter called my name on the 10th hole, which was our first hole of the day. As I walked to the tee box, I did what I always do and grabbed my ponytail. (Many female golfers like to keep their tees there, but that’s a story for another time.)

But there was no such tee in that perfect little space between my hair tie and my hat. I went with Plan B. I fiddled with the small pocket on the back of my skirt, but it was empty again. All of the walls fell down at this point. I had to turn around and ask Cassandra, who was playing with me, if I could borrow her tee. It was a mistake that could have come straight from the first page of the book that doesn’t exist, Amateur Moves.

At a PGA Tour event, playing a round with a world-class player will make you feel small. And it will quickly make you feel small.

After my approach shot on the 10th hole, I had to face the truth (yes, I made contact with the ball after the tee box mishap). I only needed a wedge to get to the green, but it was buried in Bay Hill’s notorious 4-inch-long rough, which is sure to come up a lot during the TV coverage. Believe me when I say there’s a good reason for that. I put a lot of power into my full-swing 50-degree wedge, but it landed a few yards short of where I wanted it to and just inches from the steep lip of the front bunker.

About 40 yards ahead of me on the fairway, Kisner turned around and yelled, “Welcome to Bay Hill!”

On the first tee, my nerves may have gotten the best of me, and Kisner may have poked fun at me on the first fairway, but I was in golfing heaven. There’s nothing else to say about it.

Each person in our group had a long putt for a birdie on the 11th green. Everyone knows that Kisner is a flatstick wizard. He was ninth on the PGA Tour in strokes gained putting last year. So, when he helped me figure out how to read my downhill 45-footer, I had a total geek-out moment. I pointed to a spot a few cups to the right of the 35-foot mark as a possible alignment point.

Kisner walked all the way along the line of my putt and chose a spot about 15 feet away. I didn’t think twice about taking the pro’s advice. I lag putted the ball to about 3 feet and made my first par of the day. I didn’t ask Kisner why he chooses a spot in the first half of the lag putt until later, when he helped me with another tricky birdie putt. Why not look closer to the hole, farther down the line?

Kisner replied, “I like to see the whole putt.” “I need to know where the line goes from the beginning to the end.”

It was easy to figure out. “See the putt, hit the putt” is a slightly more complicated way to say “see the ball, hit the ball.” But the idea stuck.

Kisner is the best feel player there is, and he showed that on Wednesday. During the back nine, both Kisner and I had about 100 yards to the green at one point. “All right, let’s see how far this wedge goes,” he said as he took the new wedge out of his Wilson staff bag. There was no launch monitor in sight. He put it about 4 feet away.

Gary Cressend, Kisner’s swing coach, joined us on the fourth hole, which was our 13th hole of the day. I’ll be honest: if a PGA Tour-level instructor is nearby and I have a club in my hand, I’m not going to be afraid to ask for some help. I hit my tee shot well, but my push-draw, which is my signature move, got me in trouble again. I turned to Cressend and Kisner as I walked off the tee box and asked, “So if I want to stop doing that, I need to change how I hold the club, right?”
Cressend thought about the question, but Kisner was quick to answer.

“No. Kisner said, “I think God made everyone’s arms so that they can swing the club in a certain way.” “Why would you make that different? It’s lovely.”

I didn’t realise it at the time, but that was the answer I was looking for. Not only because grip changes are so hard (if you know, you know), but also because the simple answer gave me more confidence in my not-so-normal swing. Since I can remember, I’ve always had a crazy strong grip.

When I set up to the ball, my left hand is so far turned clockwise over the club that you can see almost all of my knuckles. Yes, I might have trouble hitting a standard cut shot, but that’s just how I like to swing the club. And living in New York City makes it hard for me to get a lot of practise and make changes to my move.

Cressend stood next to me on the next tee box and said the same thing that Kisner had said. “Let your hands fall to your sides and look at them.” I did that, and sure enough, my hands were turned inwards like they are on a golf club.

This is specialised information, but you can’t talk about it with the 43rd-ranked player in the world outside of a pro-am. That’s how unique the chance is.

Talking to Kisner is an experience in and of itself. The man doesn’t hold back, and it’s great. I felt right at home because there were always F-bombs and trash talk going on. Kisner’s answers to my questions were refreshingly honest, and when I asked if I could summarise some of our conversations in this article, he was more than happy to be an open book.

“So everything is fair game?” I asked.

Kisner said, “My whole life is up for grabs.”

The PGA Tour’s new structure, which is based on events with limited fields and no 36-hole cut, was the talk of the town. I asked Kisner right away what he thought about the news, and as I had guessed, he was all for it. More money to play more often with the best players in the world? Stronger fields for fans and sponsors? Even though I was sceptical when I first heard the news, his pitch made perfect sense.

I talked about the new walk-and-talk segment on CBS that is mic’d up. Would Kisner ever agree to give it a try?

“Not if they don’t pay me.”

We should have expected that one. Full Swing on Netflix? The same.

Since 2006, Kisner has been playing on the PGA Tour. He has three children who are 2, 5, and 8 years old, but he still travels a lot. I’m always interested in how Tour players handle the stresses they face every week, so I asked Kisner if he works with a mental coach. He doesn’t, but about once a month, he talks to someone who seems more like a life coach.

“About what do you talk with him?” I asked.

“Well, I tell him I’m sick of playing out here, and he tells me to keep doing it.”

Between the one-liners, the best-ball team component, and the Tour-ready conditions at Bay Hill, the day was almost too strange to remember. I figured out greens with Kisner’s help.

At the short game area, I chipped next to Scottie Scheffler. I played inside the ropes at an event honouring Arnold Palmer, who is a true legend of the game. Over the next few weeks, I’ll try to figure out what those “pinch me” moments were like, but there is one feeling that ties everything together: gratitude.

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