by Stephen Delaney Hale
Widely liked downtown businessman Rick Osbon won the approval of 60 percent of Aiken voters for Mayor last November. But watch out, Rick – Kevin Kisner is probably the most popular guy in town. Kevin’s fan club Facebook page has more than 600 very supportive friends from all walks of life in Aiken and his daughter Kate (Kathleen Grace, almost 2) just got 265 likes!
But don’t worry, Mr. Mayor, Kevin and his wife Brittany are having too much fun to run for political office.
In the past 12 months Kevin has won over $5.5 million on the PGA Tour and his lifelong (that would be 32 years) dream of playing in The Masters is about to come true next week! (April 7-10).
In 2015 Kevin won the RSM Classic on Sea Island, Georgia in November and finished second in earlier tournaments four times, the first three in playoffs. Winning the RSM Classic would have been his ticket to The Masters but he had already punched that ticket when he shot 66 in the final round of the BMW Championship in the PGA Playoffs last September. With that finish he secured his first invitation to the Tour Championship by Coca-Cola at East Lake G.C. in Atlanta the following week as one of the top 30 in 2015 FedEx Cup points (18th). A place in the championship, decided on the year-long points system, carries with it a Masters invitation.
Unofficially, his invitation to play in The Masters also gets unlimited playing opportunities at Augusta National Golf Club to practice for his April date with destiny.
“They are going to get tired of seeing me around there,” joked Kisner while in Atlanta for the Tour Championship last year. “They may want to tell me I’ve practiced enough,” Kisner said with his easy dry wit.
Over his 10-year quest to reach the top of professional golf, Kisner has seen lots of his friends live out that invitation to play in The Masters and he has always been happy to see them make it, “because they earned it,” he said. “The coolest thing about this game is you get what you pay for. They earned their spot and now I’ve earned my spot; it’s time for me to go show them what I have.”
South Aiken High School, UGA, friends and family
Kevin grew up playing golf in Aiken. His parents, Steve and Christy, were both golfers and longtime Masters fans. Since Steve always had badges when he was growing up, Kevin was able to attend The Masters from a very young age and later so did his brother Christopher and his sister Stephanie. All are among his most enthusiastic fans now.
Kevin flashed that wit again before teeing off in the Tour Championship, saying he was eager to change the soundtrack at venerable East Lake G.C., in 2015. The year before, the tournament was won by former University of Florida alum Billy Horschel who performed a Gator Chomp as part of his victory celebration.
“Hopefully we can get some Dawgs out there barking and get rid of that Gator on the 18th green. He can watch me bark,” said Kisner. He is one of a large contingent of former University of Georgia (UGA) players on the PGA Tour. At UGA he played for four years and was a member of the 2005 NCAA Division 1 Men’s National Championship team.
He also played for South Aiken High School and grew up playing at Palmetto G.C., and Woodside C.C. A frequent figure at Houndslake C.C., he has been an active supporter of The First Tee of Aiken from its inception in 2009 and sits on its board of directors. Steve Kisner is a former chairman of the First Tee board.
In mid-March, Steve reminisced, “When Kevin first started playing, we lived in Woodside, and he could get out in the morning and just walk to the club. I was a member at Palmetto and he played there too. Tom Moore at Palmetto and Jackie Seawell, who was the pro at Woodside then, both made a lot of contributions to Kevin’s career.”
Kevin and his wife Brittany, with Kate, have recently purchased a home along the 17th fairway at Palmetto. That’s pretty much Golfing Heaven for anybody lucky enough to appreciate what it means.
In March, Brittany was with Kevin in Orlando at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and reminisced a little about their early days. “I met Kevin in college at the University of Georgia. We met through mutual friends at a concert at the Georgia Theatre in Athens. It was the summer of 2006 so we will have been together 10 years this summer. We dated for six years before getting engaged.” Their fourth wedding anniversary was celebrated that same week.
It was also in 2006 that Kevin graduated and turned professional. Today he’s had 10 years with Brittany and her support, 10 years of hard work, self-belief and steady improvement until lifelong goals finally came within reach.
No shame in these second place finishes
Kevin got the attention of the golf world last year with his three valiant playoff losses on the PGA Tour, starting the week after the 2015 Masters at The RBC Heritage at Harbor Town Golf Links on Hilton Head. The Heritage is another tournament Kevin has attended many times with friends and family, and many of them followed him on the short three-hour drive from Aiken. Steve says the Heritage was the first tournament he took Kevin to as a young boy.
During the tournament, Kisner shot a 7-under 64 on Sunday and caught crowd favorite and former U.S. Open winner Jim Furyk, who shot 63. Kevin did it with a dramatic shot when he needed it to eight feet from the pin and a birdie on the final hole. The playoff started on the difficult No. 18 and both made another birdie. The second playoff hole was the devilish water-guarded par-3 No. 17, where Kevin’s 24-footer for birdie just missed before Furyk drilled home his 8-footer for his first win in 4½ years. Kevin was praised by the broadcasters all week who took note of his remarkable shot-making. He tied for the best driving accuracy statistic for the four days of the tournament at 92.86 percent – that means he averaged missing only one fairway a day on the tightest course on tour.
Four weeks later at The Players Championship, the tournament the PGA Tour invented to compete with the four major championships and annually draws the toughest field of the year, Kevin finished tied with Tour stars Rickie Fowler and Sergio Garcia. In the final round, Kevin made birdies on No. 16 and the infamous island green No. 17 and barely missed another on No. 18 that would have won the tournament. Garcia also made birdie on the same two finishing holes, and in the wildest of finishes, Fowler was 6-under over the last six holes (incredibly 5-under on the last four). In the three-hole aggregate playoff, Rickie and Kevin both made birdie on No. 17, which proved Garcia’s undoing. Now down to the two of them, Fowler birdied No. 17 for the third time that day, and sealed his astonishing victory. In a round for the ages and great TV, Fowler had just played his last 10 holes in 8-under-par. No one had anything but praise for Kisner’s mettle down the stretch.
In July, Kisner once again found himself in a playoff, this time with three others. Danny Lee won that one on the second extra hole. In early November Kevin traveled to Shanghai, China for the World Golf Championship HSBC Champions where he finished second by two strokes to Russell Knox.
Two weeks later it finally all came together on one of his favorite courses in the RSM Classic at Sea Island Resort on the Georgia coast. This time there was no danger of a playoff when he ran away from the field and posted a six-shot victory in the tournament founded by his friend (and 2016 Ryder Cup Captain) Davis Love, III. He began the final round with a three-stroke advantage and shot a final round of 64 to seize his trophy this time.
That Sunday’s round felt like a home game as his parents led a large Aiken contingent that cheered him around the course. “I probably had 40 to 50 people that all came to the tournament,” Kisner said. “I couldn’t write it up to be a better place to win. I mean, to have all the people here and to perform down the stretch the way I did, I couldn’t write it up any better than that.”
Considered by the Tour as a 2016 victory in its new “wrap-around season” format, that November win moved him into the Top 20 in the world rankings and put him at the top of the early FedEx Cup standings moving into 2016.
New status brings new opportunities
Besides invitations to all the majors and almost-majors, such as the World Golf Championships, The Players and several invitational tournaments, he now has the luxury of setting most of his schedule before the start of the season instead of being forced to play almost every week, grinding away for checks, FedEx points and world rankings.
Here’s one example of Kisner’s graduating to a higher status on Tour: In February during the Honda Classic in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, Captain Love joined 22 potential Ryder Cup team members at the invitation of Jack and Barbara Nicklaus at their home in nearby North Palm Beach. Jack himself was among the greatest Ryder Cup players of all time and a two-time captain. The outing was meant to be a bonding moment, a chance for Nicklaus and Love to begin forming this group of individual sportsmen into a team that wants to win for each other. In the group photo, there’s Kevin standing just behind the seated Jack, Barbara and Love, and surrounded by members of his new fraternity, including Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, Keegan Bradley and co-captains Jim Furyk, Tom Lehman and Tiger Woods.
Kevin, Brittany, and Kate Kisner. Photo courtesy of Kevin and Brittany Kisner.
Preparing for The Masters
Another clear signal that you have arrived at the pinnacle of your game is that famous Christmas season invitation in the mail from The Masters. Every player waits for that piece of mail and Kevin got his this past December.
No doubt there will be two packs of fans following Kevin at The Masters, his loyal friends from Aiken and the Georgia fans who love him as their own.
“When I was in college I thought there was no way I could compete in the Masters, it was so hard,” Kisner said while preparing for the Tour Championship. “And it’s cool to see my game progress and notice that, yeah, I can play in this tournament and I can compete. So I’m looking forward to that.
“As a youngster, I grew up going to the Masters in the afternoons after working at Woodside Plantation in the mornings. These are the first memories I have of going, although I know I went numerous times with parents and friends,” Kisner said early in the new year. From his spectating days, Kevin says, “My favorite spot to watch has always been No. 16 green or tee. I love the hole because there are so many options to get the ball close to the hole, but you can also put yourself in a bad predicament if you get too aggressive.”
A month before his first Masters Kevin mused, “I look forward to learning the course more as we move closer to the tournament and the course plays closer to what it does in the tournament. I also do not want to feel like I over-prepare and get too caught up in it – just do normal preparation like I do for all my other tournaments. I will be using my good friend, Jeff Knox, to help me prepare in my weeks off.”
That’s another ace that few people get to play. Knox is an Augusta National member who holds the course record of 61 from the members’ tees. Since 2002, Knox has served as The Masters official “marker” – that’s a player who is grouped with the odd-man-out when the cut leaves an odd-number of players for the weekend. In 2014 that fella was Rory McIlroy who raved about Knox’s knowledge of the golf course and his willingness to share it, even while beating Rory in a little wager by sinking the winning putt on No. 18.
Trying not to get too caught up in what he knows will be a dazzling moment in his life, Kevin conceded, “It’s a lifelong dream and goal of mine to play Augusta. I grew up going to the tournament, grew up so close to there. My whole life has been working to play it and tournaments like that. Although it might be the biggest nightmare as far as logistics and people wanting to come watch, it would still probably be the greatest thrill of my career.”
Stephen Delaney Hale is a freelance writer in Aiken and a regular contributor to Bella Magazine.