Cult-favorite Kevin Kisner in the hunt entering final round at Bay Hill

Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Cult-favorite Kevin Kisner in the hunt entering final round at Bay Hill

PGA Tour

Cult-favorite Kevin Kisner in the hunt entering final round at Bay Hill

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ORLANDO – It really wasn’t all that long ago, the time Kevin Kisner flew to Bay Hill in a friend’s single-engine plane in order to make it to the first hole by 8:11 a.m. Thursday.

Kisner found out he was in the 2015 Arnold Palmer Invitational field after Bubba Watson withdrew late that Wednesday, and his caddie, Duane Brock, drove through the night to make the loop on one hour of sleep.

One imagines Kisner hasn’t changed nearly as much as his bank account in the four years since.

“(Life) comes at you fast and a lot of good things have happened,” Kisner said.

The 35-year-old everyman from South Carolina finished T-49 that week, but he credits the experience as a jump-start for his career and the two wins that followed.

Now he has a chance to add a third at the same venue after shooting 2-under 70 Saturday in Round 3 of the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Kisner got to 7 under for the week and two shots behind leader Matthew Fitzpatrick entering the final round, where he’s looking to become the first American to win this event since Matt Every in 2015.

He’s also realistic about what it will take to surpass Fitzpatrick, Rory McIlroy (8 under) and the rest of the cluttered leaderboard.

“I think I got to get to 12 (under), so that’s the game plan,” Kisner said. “Battled back today to have a chance.”

Kisner still carries himself like a dude playing golf without pretension. If there are many others like him on Tour, they must do a good job of hiding it. He immediately located the standard-bearer after signing his third-round scorecard and thanked him, addressing the older gentleman as “Sir.”

He enters Sunday’s final round with plenty of experience in the arena, but he’s also trying to reel in what would be the biggest win of his career. He fought hard down the stretch to keep that goal alive in Round 3, finishing with three consecutive pars after a bogey at the par-4 14th hole.

“I think it’s just brutal,” Kisner said. “The golf course is playing brutal and just nowhere to get it close to the pin. Greens are firm, hitting a lot of long irons, and it’s a true test.”

Kisner endeared himself to many during the 2017 PGA Championship at Quail Hollow, where he held the 54-hole lead. His final-round 74 and eventual T-7 finish faded from memory, but the way he handled himself throughout the week sticks in the back of the mind.

The 2004 Georgia graduate talked about hunting and fishing and drinking beer with his friends. He was funny. He was real. And he brought welcomed personality to the stuffy business-like atmosphere that permeates throughout driving ranges at every major championship.

We saw more of the same in his 2017 Presidents Cup debut and every time he’s popped up on a weekend leaderboard since. He has a cult following of sorts on social media, an appreciation from those who see him being himself rather than selling himself.

It’s easy to see Kisner becoming a huge fan favorite with a little more success, a little more air time on broadcasts, a little more exposure to the casual viewer.

Kisner probably doesn’t care too much about that. But sports are increasingly personality-driven, and the Tour has a hidden gem hoping to take another big career step at Bay Hill.

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