For every sudden-death triumph on the PGA Tour — anywhere in golf, really — there’s the poor guy on the far side of the green left to watch it unfold.
That’s where Kevin Kisner found himself at the end of last year’s Heritage, as Jim Furyk let loose with an uncharacteristic show of jubilance after shedding the yoke of 4 1/2 years with many a close call but no win.
After birdies at No.18 to force the playoff and again to extend it, Kisner couldn’t come up with a third to send the drama to a third extra hole. Rather than lament the loss, though, the Aiken native drove away from Harbour Town Golf Links with his own sense of accomplishment.
“That was legitimately the first opportunity I had to win on the PGA Tour,” Kisner recalled. “I just really enjoyed the experience of playing at that time with the chance to win. ... It showed me I could win, and really spurred the year on for me.”
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Within three months, Kisner found himself in two other playoffs, losing those as well to earn a rather dubious line in the PGA Tour’s record book. The prize finally arrived in the final stop of 2015, when he broke through with a six-shot triumph at Sea Island.
“He strongly believes he’s got something special,” swing coach John Tillery told Golf Digest. “He was never rattled by losing those playoffs. He’s a great student because he knows where he was, where he is and where he’s headed.”
Now Kisner returns to the place that launched his new career trajectory. Coming to last year’s Heritage, he stood 254th in the world rankings. Now he’s well inside the top 30, having climbed as high as 14th in January.
“It was a special year,” Kisner said. “To have that stretch of playing some unbelievable golf was pretty special.”
No South Carolina native has ever won the state’s only annual PGA Tour visit, a fact that Kisner heard endlessly from friends at the South Carolina Junior Golf Association who literally watched him grow up on the golf course.
They’ve been getting closer of late, though. Ben Martin (Greenwood) placed third behind Matt Kuchar two years ago, before Kisner made his bid in a closing 64.
“We kept talking about it all week,” said Kisner. “We’d go out to dinner after I got done, and they kept reminding me of it every night. I was working like a dog to get it for them, too.”
Kisner was the SCJGA Player of the Year in 2001, when he helped South Aiken High to its second straight Class 4-A golf title. The next year, he won five of six individual titles during his senior season. One of those came at the Wyatt Memorial, when he was a playoff winner over a Dutch Fork standout named Dustin Johnson.
Playing his college golf at Georgia, Kisner became the first Bulldog to achieve All-America status all four years, anchoring a squad that also featured fellow PGA Tour pros Chris Kirk and Brendon Todd. As a pro, though, he had success on the minitours and Web.com Tour but stalled in trying to stay in the big leagues.
In 2013, Kisner turned to Tillery, whose work with close friend Scott Brown had made him a PGA Tour winner in Puerto Rico. Though Kisner’s short game and putting had always been tour-caliber, inconsistency off the tee had damaged his confidence.
Kisner committed to a major rebuild of his swing, and played well enough to keep his card after the 2014 season. Two weeks before last year’s RBC Heritage, Tillery made a pronouncement.
“You’re at a point now where you’re going to have to prepare to win,” he told Kisner during a session at Tillery’s home base in Georgia.
It was odd timing, considering Kisner had just missed the cut in Houston, had four other MCs on the West Coast and was still looking for his first top-25 of the season. Tillery, though, turned out to be prescient.
Kisner opened with rounds of 68-67-67, entering the final day three shots off Troy Merritt’s lead. Three birdies in Sunday’s final four holes propelled him to a 64; he drained an 8-footer at No.18 to join Furyk in a playoff.
“It was make it or go home,” recalled Kisner, who also matched Furyk’s birdie when they played the 18th again to start the playoff.
The magic ended at the par-3 17th, when Kisner missed from 20 feet away while Furyk drained a 12-footer.
“It was difficult to be disappointed,” Kisner recalled. “I played 20 holes in 8-under on a Sunday on the PGA Tour. I was disappointed in my losing, but certainly not disappointed in my effort.”
Within a month, Kisner was in another playoff, on a bigger stage but seemingly an extra as The Players Championship finish centered on Rickie Fowler and Sergio Garcia. But Garcia wound up eliminated first, and only Fowler’s bold display of shotmaking left Kisner wanting.
The storyline repeated itself again in July, coming up short in extra holes at the Greenbrier Classic.
Twelve weeks, three playoffs, no wins. It earned Kisner a dubious spot in the PGA Tour record book, matching Horton Smith’s 1937 record for most playoffs in a season without winning.
“I was about sick of it by Greenbrier, for sure,” Kisner said. “That was the only time I didn’t make birdie in the playoff. So I deserved to lose there, but I was ready to win by that point for sure.”
With that item now checked off his list, there would be no better place to pick up his second PGA Tour victory.
“Harbour Town is maybe my favorite golf course on the PGA Tour,” Kisner said. “If we get good weather, it’s a place I figure I can win, or at least play well enough to compete. This is really the start of my season.”Your Guide to the RBC Heritage