Coming down the stretch in Sunday’s final round of the Tour Championship at East Lake, five players had a realistic opportunity to win the tournament, two of them former Georgia Bulldogs.
Both Russell Henley and Kevin Kisner came up just a little short, tying for third at 10-under 270, two shots behind winner Xander Schauffele.
Although the two shared third place and both took home $511,875, they arrived at their finishes from very different directions.
Henley came charging from behind with a final round 65, the low score of the day. Kisner began the day tied for second just two behind Schauffele and was in the final pairing with the 54-hole leader. Henley, who began the day seven off the lead, got as close as one shot in the final round and was one shot behind before Schauffele birdied the final hole. Kisner was in or near the lead all day but bogeyed both par 3s on East Lake’s back nine and settled for a final round 70.
Kisner, a member of Georgia’s 2005 NCAA Championship team, shot himself into contention with a third round 64 after opening with back-to-back scores of 68. Kisner didn’t stick around after his 6-under round to chat with the media, as he was hustling to the nearby Charlie Yates course to catch a helicopter ride to Athens for the Georgia-Mississippi State football game that night.
After a beautiful ball-striking round Saturday, Kisner wasn’t as sharp Sunday, with three birdies and three bogeys on his scorecard. He missed the green on the fourth for his first bogey of the day but holed putts of 18 and 28 feet for birdies on the next two holes to grab the outright lead.
Beginning with the par-4 seventh, Kisner found bunkers on four straight holes and missed the green on four of five, taking a pair of bogeys to drop out of the lead. He salvaged pars after driving into fairway bunkers on 7 and 8 and got up and down from a greenside bunker on 9 to retain his lead, but missed the green on both 10and 11 and bogeyed both.
Kisner rebounded with a 10-footer for birdie on 12 and saved par on the long and difficult par-4 14th. But he came up a little short and right with his tee shot to the island green 15th and found the water, although he managed to save a bogey with a 20-foot putt. He saved par from the front bunker at 17 before closing out his round with his only birdie of the back nine after a deft pitch to the par-5 18th.
“I gave it all I had but I did not get it done,” Kisner said after his round. “I didn’t really have my best all week. It was frustrating not to finish strong on the back nine coming down the stretch.”
Thanks to his tie for third, Kisner ended the year 12th in the FedExCup standings after beginning the Tour Championship 18th.
Despite the somewhat disappointing finish, the Tour Championship culminated what was likely Kisner’s best season of his six on the PGA Tour. He won the Colonial Invitation by a shot over Jordan Spieth, tied for second at Bay Hill and lost in a playoff with fellow Aiken, S.C., resident Scott Brown in the team event New Orleans.
“Absolutely,” Kisner replied when asked if the success he enjoyed this season outweighed the disappointment of a few near misses. “Every year I’ve gotten better and I look forward to doing that next year.”
It was the third straight year Kisner has qualified for the Tour Championship, and the consistent excellence of his play the past two years has earned him a spot on the U.S. Presidents Cup team, with that event beginning Thursday this week.
“It will be cool to be in New York in a team atmosphere,” Kisner said. He has never played in a true team event but displayed some of his recognized determination in the two-man team event in New Orleans when he chipped in for eagle on the 72nd hole to get him and Brown into a playoff.
“I’m just going to experience it and take it in stride,” Kisner said of the Presidents Cup, where he will be one of several veteran American players making their team event debuts.
Henley, a Macon native who was a member of Georgia’s NCAA runner-up team in 2011, was playing in the Tour Championship for a second time after a season highlighted by a win in Houston to get a last-minute invitation to the Masters. He tied for 11th the next week in Augusta to guarantee a return invite in 2018.
Things did not start well at East Lake for Henley, who was 3-over after seven holes in the opening round. But he birdied six of his next eight holes, three of them on shots of more than 200 yards to inside 10 feet. He scrambled for pars on his last two holes for a 67.
Henley fell back a bit with a 71 Friday but followed with another 67 Saturday that included an eagle, six birdies, five bogeys and several scrambling pars. Henley eagled the par-5 sixth by hitting his second shot from 243 yards to within four feet but was 1-over after 11 holes after his fourth bogey of the round. Henley birdied five of his last seven holes to get him into the top 10 heading into the final round, and this time didn’t wait until late in the round to make his move.
Putts of 15, 10 and 20 feet produced birdies on three of the first four holes Sunday, and he moved within a shot of the lead after rolling in a 24-footer for a birdie on No. 8. After going 4-under for his first eight holes, Henley followed with nine straight pars, getting up and down a few times but also missing a pair of 10-footers for birdie. He closed out his day with a 17-footer for birdie at the par-5 18th and was just one off the lead as he signed his scorecard.
“Very happy with it, wish I could have had a couple more, obviously,” Henley said after his round. “But 65 is pretty good on a day like today. It was a nice way to end the year.”
Thanks to his win in Houston, Henley pointed out that he was “inside the top 30 for most of the year. I wanted to validate that in the Playoffs.”
Henley slipped a bit from 19th at the end of the regular season to 27th coming into the Tour Championship but moved back up to 13th after tying for third at East Lake.
A week before Masters, Henley was facing the prospect of missing out on an invitation to his home state major, but shot 65 in the final round in Houston to win by three after trailing by four after 54 holes. With no time to let thoughts of Augusta occupy him for a long stretch, Henley had his best ever finish in Augusta next week.
After his tie for 11th this year, Henley quickly ended any possible worry about having to earn a late invitation to the 2018 Masters and will be looking for an even better showing in Augusta next year.
Henley enjoyed a strong season in 2016-17 coming off a relatively off year and is looking for even better results in 2017-18.
“I can definitely do more,” he said after his opening round 67. “I have room left to realize more of what I’m capable of.”
Three other PGA Tour members who played their college golf in Georgia also were in the field at East Lake. Georgia Tech’s Matt Kuchar tied for 10th in the Tour Championship for the third time, shooting a 67 Sunday to finish at 6-under 274 and wound up 14th in the FedExCup standings.
Augusta State’s Patrick Reed was only one shot out of the lead at 134 after 36 holes and wound up tied for 13th at 275. He inched up from 23 to 22 in the final standings and will join Kisner and Kuchar in this week’s Presidents Cup. Ex-UGA golfer Brian Harman played steady golf but did not break 70 in any round and tied for 24th at 283. He was 20th on the points list coming to East Lake and ended up 25th. Harman, a Savannah native, and Kuchar are both St. Simons Island residents.