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With impenetrable attitude, Kevin Kisner senses a breakthrough on Tour

Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the May 25, 2015 issue of Golfweek

CHARLOTTE – If you found it heart-wrenching to watch a hard-working, dues-paying, thirtysomething PGA Tour player hit all the right shots and still finish on the short end of a playoff … then what would you think if it happened again, to the same player, and all in a 22-day stretch?

It’s not just that Kevin Kisner played unabashedly great (twice) and came away empty-handed, it’s how he lost. Playing in the final group on Sunday in his home-state RBC Heritage, he birdied Harbour Town’s signature 18th hole in regulation for a closing 64, then birdied the hole again in a playoff. But Jim Furyk made 11 birdies in 20 holes and beat him.

At The Players Championship, Kisner birdied two of his last three holes, added yet another in a three-hole aggregate playoff, and was outdueled by whiz kid Rickie Fowler, who played his final 10 holes in, ahem, 8 under.

If one of the last two standing at TPC Sawgrass was viewed as “overrated” by his peers (promise, last we’ll mention that), you’d have to think the other might be a little underrated. Yes, if Kevin Kisner were a stock, it would be a good time to buy.

“If I keep playing the way I’m playing,” he said, “I’m going to win one sooner or later.”

Days after, Kisner still could not believe his final birdie putt in regulation at TPC Sawgrass didn’t drop, a 10-footer that gently started turning left, as expected, then suddenly straightened, sliding off the right edge of the cup.

“I’ll remember that one,” he said, “when I need to make another one.”

It didn’t fall, and he didn’t win. Punch in the gut? Yes, sir. I’ll take two, please. There are times you lose and want to snap every club, and then there are those occasions when you do everything you possibly can and simply get beat.

“One of these days,” Kisner said at the Wells Fargo Championship, where he tied for 38th, “I’m going to shoot 65 Sunday and come up and somebody is going to hand it to me.”

Observes his college coach, Georgia’s Chris Haack, “With some players, those close finishes might be a little devastating, but Kevin sees the positives, and now he’s expecting to have the chance to win more often. This has definitely boosted
his confidence.”

So who, exactly, is Kevin Kisner, and more importantly, why has he taken so long to blossom? Know this: He’s pretty resilient. Two excruciating losses could have punctured his golf soul, but instead he’s staying upbeat, insatiably hungry to get back in contention again.

“I would guess that greater than 50 percent of the Tour players in his position would have played the victim and wallowed in self-pity,” said Butler Melnyk, who not only is Kisner’s manager but a good player who roomed with him when the two competed at Georgia. “He’s handled it like a champion. He’s held his head high.”

In his first few on-again, off-again runs on Tour – he failed to keep his card in 2011 and ’12 – the hardest part for Kisner, 31, was giving himself that chance. He has won at every level – two state championships at South Aiken (S.C.) High School, an NCAA team title at Georgia (2005), two victories on the Web.com Tour – but he had a golf swing that he couldn’t trust. Last year, fellow PGA Tour pro Scott Brown, with whom Kisner practices and plays at Palmetto Golf Club nearly every day the two are home in Aiken, coaxed him into seeing instructor John Tillery.

Tillery helped Kisner get wider at the top with his transition and helped quiet his legs. Kisner would fire his hips quickly, lock his front leg and block many drives right. But now he’s keeping more flex in that leg and using the ground to create power. He has picked up yardage and improved his driving accuracy from outside the Tour’s top 100 to 38th. That’s huge.

“It’s been an electrifying few weeks,” Tillery said. “We have a blueprint and know where we’re headed. Whether it’s Colonial or sometime next year, if Kevin does what he needs to do, winning golf tournaments is inevitable.”

Confidence? No problem there; Kisner has it in buckets. The son of a former all-state quarterback from Charlotte, Kisner played football and basketball into the 10th grade, and he always wanted the ball. (“My golf coach was my basketball coach,” the 5-foot-10-inch Kisner says, smiling. “He said, ‘I think you better stick with golf.’ ”)

At Georgia, on a team that featured big personalities, Kisner was a quiet leader whose positive attitude was infectious. So much so that when Haack thought about replacing Kisner in his lineup for the 2005 postseason, he couldn’t do it.

Kisner was struggling mightily with his game and shot 90 in the opening round of the SEC Championship, but he didn’t get down.

“He shot 73 that next day, and you could tell it was all heart,” Haack said. “When we got to nationals (at Caves Valley in Maryland), Kevin shot 65 in the first round, and it really sparked us. Off we went.”

In Charlotte, Kisner showed some wear and tear from the emotional rollercoaster he has been riding. He planned to drive home for a day (he and his wife, Brittany, have a baby girl who turns 1 in June), and then resume his trophy hunt at Colonial.

“I think my ballstriking held me back up until now, but my inner confidence is going to pull me through now that I know I can hit the shots,” he said.

The Players in particular was great theater, and Kisner loved everything about it. On the Monday after, he wasn’t sulking. Instead he joined some buddies at a Carolina camp hunting wild boar. He didn’t land any (“Too many beers,” he said, joking). But again, like his golf, it’s probably just a matter of time.

“He’s a confident guy, and he loves the moment,” Tillery said. “Everybody gets nervous in those big situations, but some get scared. He’s definitely not scared.”

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