Kisner plays through trials to earn start in Masters
AIKEN — The simple envelope addressed to Kevin Kisner arrived at his parents’ home in late December, just before he headed west to resume his PGA Tour season.
“When he first got it he said, ‘Mom, look at this, and he showed it to me,’” Christy Kisner said.
Kisner and his family had wondered whether this day would ever come. All of the thousands of hours on the course, honing his skills, practicing his putting – would they ever pay off?
Kisner had been a star in junior golf, in high school, in college. He had turned professional and found success on the mini tours. The PGA Tour? Not so much. Only one top-10 finish in his first 50 starts at golf’s highest level. A trip back to the Web.com Tour.
Then, work with a new instructor finally clicked. His confidence grew, and he gained a sense that he belonged. With a breakout 2015 season, Kisner challenged for his first PGA Tour win. He lost three times in playoffs.
Those close calls vaulted Kisner into the top 20 in the world rankings and a spot in the season-ending Tour Championship, which in turn earned him a special piece of mail.
Christy Kisner had no idea what her son was handing her that day in the kitchen.
The Board of Governors of the Augusta National Golf Club cordially invites you to participate in the Two Thousand and Sixteen Masters Tournament to be held at Augusta, Georgia the seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth of April
Tears of joy flowed.
“The Masters has been such a big part of our lives, growing up in Aiken. For me to finally play in it is a dream come true for my entire family,” Kevin Kisner said.
Christy Kisner rushed to find a frame.
“The only frame I had was the one with the cross,” she said. “I said we prayed for this, so I might as well put it in there.”
GOLF CAME EASY for Kisner. A natural athlete, he grew up at Woodside Plantation and gravitated to the same game his father, Steve, played.
“He was a good athlete when he was little, and he tried all the sports,” Steve Kisner said. “He determined that golf was what he wanted to pursue.”
The Kisners lived on the seventh fairway of the Jones Course at Woodside, not far from the ladies tee.
“By the time I was old enough to be independent, I’d be at the golf course, and we had tons of juniors,” Kisner said. “And that’s all we did all summer was play golf. Basically from the time you woke up until dark you were at the golf course. All the members were awesome. That’s how we got into it.”
Under the tutelage of head pro Jackie Seawell, the junior program at Woodside turned out multiple Division I players. Kisner was at the tail end of that talented group age-wise, and he naturally wanted to play and compete against the older players.
“He was a product of the environment around him,” said Daniel Seawell, who helped his father run the junior program. “There were a lot of good players that he surrounded himself with that made the game more enjoyable and more attractive for him.”
The stories about Kisner’s junior days are plentiful – dominating the dogfights at an early age, becoming the best putter at the club at 7 – and true.
“I took him out of the dogfight,” Jackie Seawell said. “I called his dad and said some of the men are uncomfortable playing Kevin for $5.”
By the time he reached high school, Kisner had decided to pursue golf after dabbling in basketball, baseball and football.
“My basketball coach in high school was the golf coach as well, and he said, ‘I think you ought to stick with golf,’” Kisner said. “‘You’ve probably got a better chance of getting a scholarship to college doing that.’”
At South Aiken High School, Kisner was part of a powerful Thoroughbred team that dominated golf in the Palmetto State in the early 2000s. With Alex Hamilton, Dane Burkhart and Patrick Cunning among his teammates, the Thoroughbreds won back-to-back Class AAAA titles in 2000 and 2001.
In 2002, Kisner dominated his senior year. He won five of six individual titles, including the Southern Cross at Palmetto and the Joe Wyatt Memorial at Houndslake. In the latter event, Kisner defeated Dutch Fork’s Dustin Johnson in a sudden-death playoff for the individual title. Johnson is now a multiple PGA Tour winner.
It was in high school where Kisner developed his love for the Masters.
“It’s always our spring break in school, and this town kind of shuts down for the week,” he said. “My earliest memory of going is working in high school. Guys would come over to tee off around lunchtime and they’d already been to the Masters, and I would grab their tickets and run over there after they teed off. I’d stay until dark watching, hanging out. That’s how I grew up going over there.”
AS ONE OF THE top high school golfers in the South, Kisner had offers from all of the top colleges. He decided early on that he wanted to go out of state.
“We drove to Athens one day and looked around, and I could tell immediately that was where he was going,” Steve Kisner said. “He just loved Athens from the time he saw it. He became very close to the two golf coaches there.”
Playing on a University of Georgia squad that featured future PGA Tour winners Chris Kirk and Brendon Todd, Kisner thrived in the competitive college atmosphere.
“I had four of the greatest years of my life playing golf there,” Kisner said.
With coach Chris Haack’s unique qualifying system – no player was guaranteed a spot in the starting lineup – Kisner became just one of three Georgia players who never missed qualifying in a four-year span. The others were Russell Henley and Brian Harman, who also went on to become PGA Tour winners.
“That’s what I think has produced all those good golfers out of Georgia,” Kisner said. “There’s no ‘if you miss qualifying we’re saving a spot for you.’ The five best in qualifying go, and it doesn’t matter who it is. Sometimes we probably didn’t take our best teams, but it was fair and how we did it. I think it’s the only way to do it.”
Kisner became Georgia’s first four-time All-American, and he helped the Bulldogs win the 2005 NCAA championship.
“We started a rule, maybe after the second year, where if you finished in the top 10 in the tournament you got to get in the next one so you didn’t have to qualify,” Kisner said. “And that was pretty cool, because it incentivized you to play well in the tournament.”
It was during his college years that Kisner first got to play at Augusta National. The Georgia team traditionally gets invited each year.
“It was really cool. It’s just a special place,” he said. “To be able to hit a shot instead of standing off to the side and watching is such a different thing.”
Kisner turned professional in 2006 and became a regular on the NGA/Hooters, eGolf and Tarheel tours soon after.
“I had success early, so I was never in the financial peril that most mini-tour players are in,” he said. “I was able to keep myself above water on my own until I was able to make it to the Web.com Tour.”
Among his highlights was a win in the 2008 Savannah Lakes Resort Classic, an NGA/Hooters Tour event in McCormick, S.C.
In December 2009, Kisner shot a final-round 71 on the last day of the PGA Tour Qualifying School tournament to finish tied for 26th. The top 25 players earned PGA Tour cards for the following season.
“That was brutal,” Kisner said. “I’d played well all year, and that was my year to get through. I didn’t do it. That offseason was probably the hardest. It was either quit or get back out there.”
A discouraged Kisner thought he might give up the game and go work for his father’s construction business.
“I knew right away that construction and development was not going to be Kevin’s cup of tea,” his father said.
His mother asked the family’s minister to talk to him.
“(The minister) said, ‘Do you think your daddy gets up every day and thinks, ‘My purpose in life is to build a house?’ I don’t think that’s your daddy’s purpose. You need to think about what’s going on in your life besides golf,’” Christy Kisner said.
Kisner told his family that he was going to get a job, but his father suggested he work on his game instead.
After a brief dabble in sales, Kisner returned to the game he loves.
“The mini tours don’t play in January, so I tried to make some money and see if I liked doing that,” Kisner said. “I decided to go back and start practicing. I liked golf better.”
KISNER PLAYED the Web.com Tour full time in 2010, and he won the Mylan Classic and finished 11th on the money list to secure his PGA Tour card for 2011. But he made only 10 cuts, so he had to return to
Q school. This time, he was successful with a tie for 11th.
Another mediocre season on the PGA Tour in 2012 – he made 10 cuts in 24 events – sent Kisner back to the Web.com Tour again.
After success at every level, Kisner had hit a brick wall.
His father remembered a conversation they had early in his PGA Tour career.
“I remember one time he told me his first year on tour, ‘You know, Dad, I can compete with these guys. I’m a pretty good chipper, good putter. I’m determined to be good at it. But the difference is, these guys, when they hit a 3-iron they are trying to hit it to 5 feet and make birdie. When I hit a 3-iron, I’m just trying to get it on the green. I can’t compete out here like that.’”
Kisner found the winner’s circle in 2013, winning the Chile Classic on the same day that longtime friend and fellow Aiken resident Scott Brown won the Puerto Rico Open on the PGA Tour.
Again, Kisner was on his way toward the PGA Tour, but he knew he had to make changes if he was going to be successful this time.
“I had won earlier in the year, but I was still struggling,” he said. “I was going to get my card, and I knew that I couldn’t go play the PGA Tour the way I was hitting it.”
Enter John Tillery, a former mini-tour player who became an instructor. He worked with Brown, and Kisner noticed the success his friend was starting to have. Kisner’s biggest issue was driving accuracy, so he turned to Tillery for help.
“I’ve got to be playing from the fairway to play on the PGA Tour,” Kisner said. “It’s funny how my game works. If I’m driving it well, the rest of it goes in sync. But if I start hitting driver poorly, my mind starts wandering a little bit and I don’t hit the rest of the shots well.”
Kisner and Tillery clicked from the beginning.
“He was fighting a block, a miss to the right,” Tillery said. “That was kind of the one that plagued him. And then the fear of that shot coming sabotaged him a little bit. There were some things we had to clean up in his golf swing, but fearing that tee shot was the biggest thing.”
Despite his struggles on the PGA Tour, Kisner told Tillery that he believed he could win.
“He kind of laughed at that when I told him that and I’m shanking it out of his bay,” Kisner said. “I think that’s one of the reasons I play so well is that I just have that inner belief in myself and I know my abilities, if I’m given the right information. If I can get him to get me on the right track, I’ll work hard enough. I knew I would spend every waking hour trying to get it figured out.”
Success didn’t come overnight, but Kisner played well enough to make 17 cuts with three top-10 finishes and earn nearly $1 million. He made the FedEx Cup playoffs for the first time, and he entered the 2015 season with some confidence.
In nine events before the PGA Tour reached the Florida Swing, Kisner’s best showing was a tie for fourth at Sea Island. He had missed four consecutive cuts on the West Coast, but he stuck to the plan he and Tillery had set up nearly two years before.
“Until you really get out there and put your ability against the best in the world, you just don’t know where you’re going to peak out,” his father said. “He had some difficult times in his first few years. There were doubts creeping in, and whether he was good enough. We always knew he had the ability and determination, but he had some mechanical things in his golf game that were holding him back.”
KISNER BEGAN 2015 ranked No. 236 in the world. The struggles early in the season didn’t do anything to improve his status, and once again he was relegated to the sidelines as the golf world focused its attention on Augusta and the Masters.
Up next for Kisner was the RBC Heritage at Hilton Head Island, S.C., and a familiar track in Harbour Town Golf Links. The short, tight layout with small greens favored Kisner’s style of play, and he had played the course since his junior days.
Tillery predicted success for Kisner in his home state about two weeks before the event began.
“John and I were in his bay working on some things and he said, ‘You’re at a point now you’re going to have to prepare to win,’” Kisner said. “And he said, ‘The tournament for you to win is Hilton Head in two weeks. The golf course is perfect for you, and that’s how your whole preparation needs to be.’”
With millions of dollars up for grabs each week, plenty of PGA Tour players make a handsome living without ever winning. That didn’t suit the competitive Kisner.
“It’s so easy on the tour, (if) you don’t ever win, to lose sight of what the real goal is instead of playing well and finishing top 10,” he said. “Our goal going into that tournament was to win.”
Kisner opened with rounds of 68, 67 and 67 to get into the thick of things, but he still trailed Troy Merritt going into the final round.
“Standing on the range on Sunday I said, ‘I’m going to win today,’” Kisner said. “I don’t know why, I just had it going.”
A final-round 64 at Harbour Town, including a closing birdie on the final hole, put Kisner into a sudden-death playoff with Jim Furyk. Both players birdied the first playoff hole, the 18th, and Furyk won on the second playoff hole with another birdie.
“I played great, obviously got outrun a little bit,” Kisner said.
Three weeks later, Kisner backed up that performance on a much bigger stage at the Players Championship. He shot 73-67-67 to get into contention.
His parents were at St. Simons Island for a family wedding and decided to head down for the final round.
“It was Mother’s Day, and (Steve) said, ‘What do you want to do?’” Christy Kisner said. “I said, ‘I want to go watch my son play golf.’ We got up early and left. Boy, was that the most fun Mother’s Day I’ve had in a while.”
Kisner made birdies on TPC Sawgrass’ 16th and 17th holes, and his 12-footer for birdie to win the tournament outright barely missed. That put him in a three-hole aggregate playoff with Rickie Fowler and Sergio Garcia, two of golf’s biggest stars.
Kisner was clearly the interloper, but he didn’t act like it. He thrived.
“I’ve always been good in that position when the pressure’s on,” he said. “I don’t know why, it’s just part of me and what I love to do. It’s what I practice for and why I hit all those balls and putted and practiced all that time to be in that position. I don’t ever want to be the guy who shies away from that feeling. I love having the nerves and excitement of trying to pull it off under pressure.”
On the second playoff hole, the island par-3 17th, Kisner matched Fowler’s birdie. It was the confidence that Kisner showed as he drained the putt that excited his instructor.
“Watching him the second he was fist-pumping a putt in on 17 at Sawgrass with the world watching?” Tillery said. “From then on, I don’t care if he makes eight on the next hole, he’s going to win. That’s the stuff you can’t teach. While my hands shake when I’m in that spot, he’s walking it in fist-pumping.”
All three players parred No. 18, and Garcia was eliminated. That sent Kisner and Fowler back to the 17th for sudden death.
Kisner hit his tee shot inside 15 feet, but Fowler stuffed it to inside 5 feet. Kisner missed, and Fowler rolled in his birdie putt for the victory.
“That was the first time I’d ever been in a golf tournament where it felt like a football game,” Kisner said. “That’s the reason they call it the Stadium Course. That whole setting, it was nuts. As soon as you made contact with the ball, the screaming and yelling, it got your heart pumping. It was awesome to feel that adrenaline.”
While Fowler got the accolades for his biggest career win, Kisner earned respect.
“If any player watched this today, I’ll tell you what, not one of them wants to be in a playoff with Kevin Kisner going forward,” Frank Nobilo said on the Golf Channel. “He flat-out said, ‘I don’t care who you are, I’m going to take you on.’”
Even Johnny Miller, NBC’s analyst, said Kisner was a “star in the making.”
“Kisner, he’s a clutch guy,” Miller said on the air. “I don’t know much about him but I’m impressed with what I’ve seen.”
KISNER’S SUCCESS continued through the rest of the 2015 season. He followed with top-10 finishes at Colonial and the Memorial, and he tied for 12th at the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay.
At the Greenbrier Classic, he shot 64 in the final round to get in another playoff. But his tee shot on the first playoff hole found a gnarly lie and he was eliminated. That left him as the first player since Horton Smith to lose a playoff three times in the same season.
“I couldn’t even see the ball,” Kisner said of the Greenbrier playoff. “After I whiffed it twice my caddie said, ‘What do you want to do?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, let’s just get out of here.’ It was cool.”
Appearances in the British Open and PGA Championship followed, and even though he missed the cut at both, he gained valuable experience. He breezed through all three rounds of the FedEx Cup playoffs and made it to the Tour Championship at East Lake, securing his Masters invitation.
After a month break, Kisner resumed play as the 2015-16 season began in late October. After a couple of average starts, he opened with 64 in the World Golf Championships event in China. After leading or sharing the lead through 54 holes, he finished second to Russell Knox.
“I played pretty decent but I didn’t make the putts I needed to make to win,” Kisner said. “I kept thinking he might give me a chance by making a bogey coming in, but he just played solid.”
Kisner had one last start for the calendar year, and it came at a familiar location: St. Simons Island, for the RSM Classic. He was familiar with the Sea Island area from college golf and was living there while his home in Aiken was being renovated.
“We just kind of went into that week as a bonus,” Kisner said. “To chill out, we had family and friends coming down. I’d just played great and secured my playing status for another year. Let’s just enjoy it and have fun and see what we do.”
Rounds of 65, 67 and 64, however, changed those expectations. With a three-shot lead going into Sunday, Kisner had a chance to shed the runner-up label.
“The only thing you can really do from there is mess it up,” he said. “Either you play good and win or you mess it up. All my other tournaments I was either tied for the lead or one back; I was kind of a chaser. Now I was the one getting chased.”
His parents were there, and they could sense he was nervous heading into the final round. But Kisner allayed any fears by making five birdies on the front nine at Sea Island to open up a sizable lead.
“He’ll talk to me a lot when I’m walking in the gallery,” his father said. “He’ll find me and say something. He never acknowledged me or smiled or said anything to me until after he made that long putt at 9. He was walking down the 10th fairway and smiled at me and said something, and I thought, he’s relaxed now.”
With Kisner playing alongside former U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell, Kisner’s mom inadvertently gave the Northern Irishman an assist. McDowell’s tee shot hit her between her ankle and heel, and instead of going into a marsh, it was playable.
“Kevin said, ‘Mom, nice assist. Next time, put it in the junk,’” she said. “Graeme’s dad came up and said, ‘That would be me son that hit you.’”
The elder McDowell had been hit by an errant shot the week before, and McDowell won that event in Mexico.
“I said it’s Kevin’s turn this time,” Christy Kisner said. “He said, ‘We’ll see.’”
Kisner didn’t have any trouble navigating the final nine holes, but his history in college events at the Sea Island course made his parents nervous. They don’t normally walk together, but they decided to walk the final few holes as he closed in on victory.
“Steve said, ‘I’m not going to be happy until he’s on the fairway on 18,’” Christy Kisner said. “I said, ‘I’m not going to be happy until he’s on the green.’ Then I said, ‘I think we might do it.’”
Kisner was tight-lipped until the final hole, when he finally smiled after hitting the green. After two-putting for a six-shot win, he celebrated with his family.
“We did it,” Kisner said as he scooped up his 17-month-old daughter, Kate, and greeted his wife, Brittany, behind the 18th green.
It didn’t hurt that Kisner accepted the trophy from tournament host Davis Love III, who will be the U.S. Ryder Cup captain this fall.
“To come out and shoot 5-under on the front nine, what else could you ask for?” Kisner said. “It was a cool way to have my first win, kind of coast in to the finish. I made that putt on nine and knew I could pretty much handle it from there.”
The big Aiken contingent of family and friends that converged on Sea Island enjoyed a memorable victory party.
“I was able to go meet up with all my friends and family, and they stayed afterwards and we had a big party at Bubba Garcia’s,” Kisner said. “The coolest part was I didn’t have to go changing plans and fly on an airplane to get home.”
WITH HIS SUCCESS in the past 12 months, Kisner is getting more attention than ever. Golf magazines want him for photo shoots, and he is a popular interview subject.
He and Tillery joke about what they call the “Ronda Rousey Project.” The mixed martial arts star was plastered all over media before suffering a knockout loss to Holly Holm last fall.
“Now the landscape’s changed,” Tillery said. “It used to be me and him in shorts and hitting crappy range balls and fighting and fussing and working through it. Now it’s cameras and magazines and photo shoots, all those things. Somewhere along the way that probably interfered with her training and preparation. We’re going to try to make sure we don’t get kicked in the face instead of making magazine covers.”
Kisner agreed with a laugh.
“We don’t want that to happen to me; we’ve got to keep our head down and do the same thing we’ve been doing,” he said.
Kisner has carried over his success from 2015 into the early part of this year. He has been at or near the top of the FedEx Cup points race, and he has a shot to represent the U.S. later this year in the Olympics and the Ryder Cup.
“I can’t think of a bigger honor than to represent our country in the Olympics or in the Ryder Cup,” Kisner said. “Those are goals of mine, but all goals will be taken care of if I take care of my process, and results will come if I do the things I need to do to play well.”
Avoiding the spotlight at the Masters will be difficult for Kisner. He’s one of a handful of area players to make the tournament, and just the second from Aiken. He’ll make his debut at age 32 and with a decade of professional experience behind him.
“I’m going to go off the radar and do what I do,” he said. “Treat it like any other tournament and play as well as possible.”
He’s already had a few practice rounds, and in February he consulted local resident and Augusta National member Jeff Knox for some advice.
“I think part of the deal is you’ve got to realize it’s still golf,” Kisner said. “Just because it’s Augusta National doesn’t change the idea of getting the ball in the hole, and you’ve got to figure out how to attack the golf course and play your game.”
Now, all of the hard work has paid off. Instead of standing on the practice green at Woodside pretending to have a putt to win the Masters, he will actually compete.
“Once he committed to golf, his dream was to get to this level,” his father said. “I don’t think he’s any different than the other ones out there. They all had the same dreams and aspirations.”
His mother said that his confidence rarely wavered, and he promised to one day make the Masters.
“We’ve never had tickets, and I always love going,” she said. “He said ‘Mom, don’t worry about it, I’ll get you there.’ That’s when I said, ‘Get me there while I can still walk it.’”
Kisner has fulfilled that promise, and more. He’s no longer on the mini tours or the Web.com Tour. He has made it to golf’s ultimate level, and he has the invitation to show for it.
“I was playing and had a yardage book out, writing notes down on putts, and certain things like that,” he said of a winter scouting trip to Augusta National. “It’s come full circle from watching to now I’m actually preparing to play the tournament.”