When Kevin Kisner celebrated his 31st birthday earlier this year, he was one of a sizeable number of mostly anonymous PGA Tour players who perform well enough to earn a comfortable living, but had done little to attract the attention of the sport’s media or fans.
After graduating from the U. of Georgia in 2006, Kisner spent his first few years as a pro competing successfully on regional tours in the Southeast, primarily the now defunct eGolf Tour. He became a Web.com Tour member in 2010 and split his next five years between that tour and the PGA Tour, retaining his PGA Tour playing privileges for the first time after the 2014 season.
Other than a tie for fourth in last year’s McGladrey Classic at Sea Island Golf Club, Kisner’s 2014-15 season was proceeding along the same path as his first three years on the tour. Through his first 90 starts on the PGA Tour, Kisner had just five top-10 finishes and seemed headed for another season of struggling to retain his exempt status.
Fast forward seven months and Kisner’s career has moved in an entirely different direction. He is now ranked among the top 20 players in the world after a breakthrough year in 2015 that culminated with a victory in the renamed RSM Classic at Sea Island Golf Club.
Kisner rose to prominence this year on the strength of four runner-up finishes, the first three coming in playoffs. In all three tournaments in which he lost in extra holes, Kisner performed heroically the final day, closing with 64s in the Heritage and the Greenbrier and a 69 in the Players. It took multiple playoff birdies by Jim Furyk at Harbour Town and Rickie Fowler at TPC Sawgrass to deny Kisner, and first hole birdies by two of the four playoff participants at the Greenbrier to end his hopes of victory.
Thanks to an outstanding stretch of golf from mid-April through mid-July and solid showings in the first three FedExCup Playoffs events, Kisner ended the 2014-15 season 17th in the final points list. He added a fourth runner-up finish in the calendar year in the recent WGC event in China, one of the early tournaments on the PGA Tour’s 2015-16 schedule.
In his three playoff losses, Kisner trailed going to the final round, and was tied with eventual WGC winner Russell Knox after 54 holes in China. He was in a different position at St. Simons, leading final round playing partners Kevin Chappell and Graeme McDowell by four and three shots respectively after 54 holes.
Kisher led the RSM Classic after opening with a 65 on the Plantation course, which shared host duties with the Seaside course for the first two days. A 67 the next day on Seaside dropped him one behind Chappell after 36 holes, but he regained the lead with a third round 64, the low score of the day.
Leading after 54 holes for the first time, Kisner responded with a second straight 64, matching the best score of the day. He finished with a tournament record 22-under 260 total, six shots in front of Chappell and seven ahead of McDowell, with his two closest pursuers both shooting 67 on Sunday.
Kisner’s victory was worth $1.026 million and vaulted him into first place in the FedExCup standings as the PGA Tour took its end of the year break. Kisner will be in the field for the 2016 opener in Hawaii, joining the other winners from 2015 at Kapalua.
After his series of near-misses, Kisner retained the belief that he would eventually break into the victory column, and said questions about whether he would ever win “never crossed my mind. In my previous four years on tour, I never felt like I had the game to win. I wasn’t playing well enough to win.
“This year I saw the strides where I’m leading coming into Saturday or taking the lead early in the week or having a chance on Sunday. I knew if I kept playing that way I was going to win one sooner or later.”
The first five PGA Tour events played at Sea Island Golf Club ended in playoffs twice, with one shot separating the winner and runner-up the other three times. Kisner’s record-setting performance ended the tournament’s history of down-to-the-wire finishes, with Kisner taking control early in the final round.
Kisner went out in 5-under 30 to double his lead to six shots at the turn. He hit approach shots to 6 ½ feet for birdie on the second and five feet on the fourth, and holed a 15 footer on the fifth for a third birdie after hitting his tee shot in a fairway bunker. He went for the green in two at the par-5 seventh, but wound up in a sandy native area off the fairway with his ball just behind a tall thicket of grass. Kisner was able to extricate himself from trouble and save par, and followed with a birdie on the short, par-4 eighth before closing out his sizzling opening nine with a putt of over 30 feet for birdie on the ninth.
Neither Chappell nor McDowell ever threatened Kisner’s lead, with back-to-back birdies at 16 and 17 by Chappell reducing the margin to five shots before Chappell bogeyed the 18th. Kisner was 1-under on the closing nine, reaching the par-5 15th in two for his lone birdie and saving par on the par-3 17th after finding a greenside bunker with his tee shot.
“I just wanted to get off to a great start and try to pull away and increase that lead a little and make me feel more comfortable,” Kisner said. “I started making putts on the front nine and it started going in from everywhere, and that’s when you know you’ve got it going on.
“It was really nice to play the back nine with that much of a lead and the wind blowing, not making it that easy. I just played conservative and tried to make a bunch of pars and hit the greens, and I was able to do that.”
Kisner had some unpleasant memories of being in contention on the Seaside course during his college days at Georgia, twice having a chance to win an individual SEC championship before letting it slip away on the closing holes. Kisner never won a tournament in his four years in Athens and was overshadowed by Kirk and Todd along with Brian Harman, who was a freshman when Kisner was a senior. But Kisner was a consistent performer his entire college career, earning Honorable Mention All-America honors all four years.
After enjoying some success at the mini-tour level, Kisner won as a rookie on the Web.com Tour in 2010, placing 11th on the money list, and was back on the tour in 2013, again scoring a victory and ending up 13th in earnings. It took him three seasons on the PGA Tour to keep his card, finally breaking through with a win early in his fifth season.
Kisner’s victory was the product of four straight outstanding rounds at Sea Island Golf Club, beginning with a 7-under 65 the first day at Plantation, highlighted by an eagle on the par-5 eighth, his 17th hole of the day. He was 4-under on Plantation’s four par-5s. A solid 67 the next day on Seaside left him one behind Chappell after 36 holes, and the former Bulldog followed with consecutive scores of 64 on Seaside to pull away from the field.
With five birdies on the back nine Saturday, Kisner opened a 3-stroke lead after 54 holes, combining some exceptional iron play with a hot putter. His two birdies on the front nine came on putts of six and eight feet, and he added two more birdies on holes 10 and 13 before an errant drive cost him a bogey on the 14th, one of his only two bogeys over 72 holes.
The key stretch of the tournament for Kisner came on holes 16, 17 and 18 that day, as he went birdie-birdie-birdie to take the lead going to the final round. He hit his approach to 3 ½ feet on the dangerous 16th, holed a 10-footer on the 17th and rolled in a putt from 28 feet on the 18th to conclude his round in style.
“What a way to end the year,” Kisner said after his victory the next day. “By far the greatest year of my life golf-wise.”
Kisner wasn’t the only player with Georgia ties to enjoy a successful week on St. Simons Island.
Fellow ex-Bulldog and Macon native Russell Henley fired a final round 65 to tie for fifth at 271. He tied for sixth in the tournament last year. Augusta native Charles Howell, who has played well several times in the tournament, tied for ninth at 272.
Fellow Augusta native Scott Brown, like Kisner a resident of Aiken, S.C., tied for 18th at 273 along with 2013 McGladrey Classic champion Chris Kirk, Kisner’s teammate at UGA. Kirk, who grew up in Woodstock, lived for several years on St. Simons and recently moved to Athens, matched Henley’s final round 65.
Tying for 25th at 274 were St. Simons residents Matt Kuchar and Harris English, with tournament host Davis Love III closing with a 66 to tie for 33rd at 275 after making the cut on the number at 2-under 140. Love played the first two rounds with his son Dru, a member of the golf team at Alabama, who won a qualifier for local golfers to earn a spot in the field.
Also making it to the weekend was Jonathan Byrd (276), Roberto Castro (277) and Stewart Cink (279). Zach Johnson and Brendon Todd made the cut, but with 87 players advancing, the field was reduced to the low 70 and ties after 54 holes, and both failed to qualify for Sunday’s final round.
Georgia PGA member Tim Weinhart, the Director of Instruction at Heritage Golf Links, opened with an even par 70 in Seaside, but shot 2-over 74 the next day at Plantation to miss the cut.