AIKEN, S.C. – Interstate 77 south goes from four lanes to two in a hurry just outside Charlotte, N.C., as clear a sign as any that you’re quickly descending into the Old South.
Just two hours down I-77 from Charlotte’s Quail Hollow Club, site of this week’s PGA Championship, just off exit 22 on the road to Augusta, Ga., is Aiken – think Mayberry, USA, with Uber and a thriving restaurant district.
It’s where Kevin Kisner was born and where he continues to live despite the unwritten mandate that with fame and fortune on the PGA Tour comes the need to upgrade to a tony new zip code.
Kisner stayed in Aiken after he left the University of Georgia and turned professional because, “when I was playing mini-tours and I was broke, that's the only place I could afford to buy a house and I went back there. I just love it.”
And he became a member at Palmetto Golf Club, an 1892 Alister MacKenzie gem hidden behind a row of shrubs just off Berrie Road, because, “I have a core group of friends that we hang out with that don't pester me about golf and we hang out and have a couple beers on the back porch.”
On any given day, Kisner can be found with long-time friend and playing partner, but never opponent, Scott Brown tooling around in a tricked out golf cart with big speakers and a cooler.
In Palmetto you’ll find the perfect metaphor for Kisner: laid back, edgy and perfectly southern.
He could have bolted to the warm skies and clear waters of South Florida like so many other Tour types and become a member of a secluded club with big fences and a fancy pool. Palmetto isn’t that club.
Sunday, Noon ET
Just across the gravel parking lot on the other side of the 16th tee is the Palmetto pro shop, the property’s original structure that is part pro shop, part halfway house, part 19th hole. Think of it as an open floor-plan hang.
More than two hours before Kisner was scheduled to tee off in the 99th PGA Championship an assortment of members marched through the multifunctional clubhouse.
There were the normal Sunday games at Palmetto, which anecdotally were not allowed during the Blue law days until Palmetto Golf Club vs. Aiken County changed all that in 1927. They still talk about those days at Palmetto so, you’re welcome.
Groups pay off bets and talk about their rounds and eventually ask, “How’s Kiz doin’?”
He’s one of their own, not just a fellow member, but a friend you can tease and catch the needle from and someone to drink a beer with, which will run you $1.50, or as head pro Brooks Blackburn winks, “PGA prices.”
After finding the fairway at the first, Kisner’s approach drops 12 feet from the hole for a two-putt par to maintain his one-stroke lead at Quail Hollow.
“Was that a cut?” Blackburn asks of Kisner’s approach shot. “We call that a cut block.”
This is where Kisner learned the game. At 7 years old, his father, Steve, who is a local contractor in Aiken, sent him to a clinic at Palmetto.
“He was the same as he is now,” says Tom Moore, who served as Palmetto’s head pro for 30 years and ran that clinic 25 years ago. “He’s always had that air that he was good. He had the attitude no matter what shot he hit it was going to be good.”
It’s a measure of the ownership the club has with their resident Tour winners, that for every member who made their way through the clubhouse during Sunday’s final round at Quail Hollow there were just as many, “How’s Brownie doin’?”
At the Zurich Classic, Kisner and Brown teamed to finish runner-up. It’s a partnership that began when they were juniors, Brown growing up in North Augusta and Kisner in Aiken. They both have houses that border Palmeto – with Kisner’s adjacent the 17th fairway and Brown’s next to the third hole – and share the same swing instructor, John Tillery.
Brown has seen the best of Kisner, and when asked how he would described his regular partner, “He’s humbly confident. He’s not going to go around telling everyone he’s great, but his belief in himself is very high,” he says.
Another way to describe the two-time Tour winner is competitive, sometimes to the extreme.
“If he’s in here drinking beers he’ll talk trash,” laughs Matt Nesmith, an Aiken native and aspiring professional “He’s always been like that.”
At the par-4 third, Kisner finds a bunker off the tee, hits his approach short and faces a slippery 6-footer for par. About a dozen members mulling around the clubhouse watch anxiously, but Blackburn shrugs, “Just give it to him. He never misses those.”
Kisner converts the par putt to a round of applause.
They’ve all seen it, Kisner’s machine-like ball-striking and effortless putting stroke on Palmetto’s slick Bermuda grass greens that are nothing more than smaller versions of the putting surfaces at this week’s PGA.
“We tried to take those two on [Kisner and Brown] in an alternate-shot game right before they left for the Zurich [Classic] and they killed us,” Nesmith says. “We lost everything, the front, the back, the overall. They were 8 under.”
The local middle school team arrives for a practice session and one by one they run from the range, which measures just 240 yards, to check on Kisner’s progress.
Kisner rinses his second shot at the par-5 seventh hole on his way to a bogey to drop a stroke off the lead.
“I can’t watch this,” moans Richard Anaclerio, an 11-year-old with the short game of a 21-year-old, before darting back to the practice putting green.
A dozen members linger in the 19th hole or on the porch looking over their shoulders at a pair of flat-screen televisions and the place comes alive when Kisner converts from 17 feet for birdie at the 10th hole to, temporarily, move back into the lead.
“He made it, he made it,” member Jay Jasmin announces.
With Kisner facing a 6-footer for par at the 11th hole, the broadcast predictably posts a graphic of Kisner’s performance from 6 feet and in this week – 53-for-53.
“I think they’re going to jinx him, no . . ,” Nesmith says.
Kisner misses the putt and follows that with another bogey at the 12th hole to fall to 5 under par and three strokes behind Justin Thomas.
With the crowd thinning like the last two minutes of a University of Georgia football game with the home team down by three touchdowns, Kathy, the bar attendant, closes for the night.
“What is happening?” Anaclerio sighs as he peaks through the door.
Following a birdie at the 14th hole, Akien’s favorite son taps in for another at the par-5 15th to move to within a stroke of the lead.
“Go Kiz!” yells an elderly member to no one in particular on his way to the locker room.
Although arguably the most brutal stretch in major championship golf awaits – Nos. 16, 17 and 18 – Moore explains why Kisner is uniquely suited to do what few were able to this week and play the Green Mile under par.
“It’s just like the greens here [at Palmetto], you have to just let them die in the hole and that’s exactly what these [the PGA greens] do,” he says.
Kisner three-putts the 16th hole for a bogey to drop three back and a groan echoes from somewhere in the locker room. Blackburn gazes at the television shaking his head at the 10-footer for par that Kisner left inexplicably short.
“Don’t leave it short. What is this a Calcutta?” Blackburn asks before pausing and being reminded that Kisner may need some time before he can joke about his seventh-place finish at the PGA. “He’s pretty good about [losses], it’s amazing what hunting and fishing and Budweiser can do to help ease the pain.”
Well, all that and a place called Palmetto.