The boys at Palmetto can't quite pull Kiz to PGA win

By Rex HoggardAugust 14, 2017, 1:07 am

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.

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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.”

2:49 p.m.

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.”

3:20 p.m.

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.”

3:30 p.m.

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.”

4 p.m.

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.

5:05 p.m.

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.

5:20 p.m.

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.

6 p.m.

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.

6:20 p.m.

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.

6:30 p.m.

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.

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USC's Gaston leaves to become head coach at A&M

By Ryan LavnerJune 19, 2018, 11:00 pm

In a major shakeup in the women’s college golf world, USC coach Andrea Gaston has accepted an offer to become the new head coach at Texas A&M.

Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

Gaston, who informed her players of her decision Monday night, has been one of the most successful coaches over the past two decades, leading the Trojans to three NCAA titles and producing five NCAA individual champions during her 22-year reign. They have finished in the top 5 at nationals in an NCAA-record 13 consecutive seasons.

This year was arguably Gaston’s most impressive coaching job. She returned last fall after undergoing treatment for uterine cancer, but a promising season was seemingly derailed after losing two stars to the pro ranks at the halfway point. Instead, she guided a team with four freshmen and a sophomore to the third seed in stroke play and a NCAA semifinals appearance. Of the four years that match play has been used in the women’s game, USC has advanced to the semifinals three times.  

Texas A&M could use a coach with Gaston’s track record.

Last month the Aggies fired coach Trelle McCombs after 11 seasons following a third consecutive NCAA regional exit. A&M had won conference titles as recently as 2010 (Big 10) and 2015 (SEC), but this year the team finished 13th at SECs.

The head-coaching job at Southern Cal is one of the most sought-after in the country and will have no shortage of outside interest. If the Trojans look to promote internally, men’s assistant Justin Silverstein spent four years under Gaston and helped the team win the 2013 NCAA title.  

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Spieth 'blacked out' after Travelers holeout

By Will GrayJune 19, 2018, 9:44 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – It was perhaps the most-replayed shot (and celebration) of the year.

Jordan Spieth’s bunker holeout to win the Travelers Championship last year in a playoff over Daniel Berger nearly broke the Internet, as fans relived that raucous chest bump between Spieth and caddie Michael Greller after Spieth threw his wedge and Greller threw his rake.

Back in Connecticut to defend his title, Spieth admitted that he has watched replays of the scene dozens of times – even if, in the heat of the moment, he wasn’t exactly choreographing every move.

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“Just that celebration in general, I blacked out,” Spieth said. “It drops and you just react. For me, I’ve had a few instances where I’ve been able to celebrate or react on a 72nd, 73rd hole, 74th hole, whatever it may be, and it just shows how much it means to us.”

Spieth and Greller’s celebration was so memorable that tournament officials later shipped the rake to Greller as a keepsake. It’s a memory that still draws a smile from the defending champ, whose split-second decision to go for a chest bump over another form of celebration provided an appropriate cap to a high-energy sequence of events.

“There’s been a lot of pretty bad celebrations on the PGA Tour. There’s been a lot of missed high-fives,” Spieth said. “I’ve been part of plenty of them. Pretty hard to miss when I’m going into Michael for a chest bump.”

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Pregnant Lewis playing final events before break

By Randall MellJune 19, 2018, 9:27 pm

Stacy Lewis will be looking to make the most of her last three starts of 2018 in her annual return to her collegiate roots this week.

Lewis, due to give birth to her first child on Nov. 3, will tee it up in Friday’s start to the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship at Pinnacle Country Club in Rogers, Arkansas. She won the NCAA individual women’s national title in 2007 while playing at the University of Arkansas. She is planning to play the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship next week and then the Marathon Classic two weeks after that before taking the rest of the year off to get ready for her baby’s arrival.

Lewis, 33, said she is beginning to feel the effects of being with child.

“Things have definitely gotten harder, I would say, over the last week or so, the heat of the summer and all that,” Lewis said Tuesday. “I'm actually excited. I'm looking forward to the break and being able to decorate the baby's room and do all that kind of stuff and to be a mom - just super excited.”

Lewis says she is managing her energy levels, but she is eager to compete.

“Taking a few more naps and resting a little bit more,” she said. “Other than that, the game's been pretty good.”

Lewis won the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship in 2014, and she was credited with an unofficial title in ’07, while still a senior at Arkansas. That event was reduced to 18 holes because of multiple rain delays. Lewis is a popular alumni still actively involved with the university.

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Just like last year, Spieth in desperate need of a spark

By Will GrayJune 19, 2018, 8:38 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Jordan Spieth has arrived at the Travelers Championship in need of a turnaround. Again.

Spieth’s playoff victory last year over Daniel Berger, complete with a bunker hole-out and raucous celebration, went down as one of the most electrifying moments of 2017. It also propelled Spieth to some more major glory, as he won The Open in his very next start.

So it’s easy to forget the state of Spieth’s game when he first stepped foot on the grounds of TPC River Highlands a year ago. Things were, quite plainly, not going well.

He was struggling on the greens, even going so far as to switch putters at the AT&T Byron Nelson. He then failed to contend at Erin Hills, only netting a T-35 finish thanks to a final-round 69 that came hours before the leaders teed off.

So here we are again, with Spieth in search of a spark after a series of underwhelming performances that included last week’s effort at Shinnecock Hills, where he bogeyed the last two holes of his second round to miss the cut by a shot. Except this time, the climb back to the top may be even steeper than it was a year ago.

“I’m not sure where the state of my game is right now,” Spieth said. “If I strike the ball the way I have been this year, then the results are coming. But the last couple weeks I’ve played Muirfield and then the (U.S.) Open, and I hit the ball really poorly and didn’t give myself that many opportunities to let the putter do the work.”

While many big names play sporadically in the time between the Masters and U.S. Open, Spieth remained as busy as ever thanks to the Tour’s swing through Texas. So even after failing to contend much in the spring outside of a memorable finale in Augusta, and even after struggling for much of his week at TPC Sawgrass, Spieth looked out at his schedule and saw a myriad of possible turning points.

There was the AT&T Byron Nelson, played in his hometown and at a venue on which he was one of only a handful with any experience (T-21). Then a trip across town to Colonial, where he had beaten all but two players in a three-year stretch (T-32).

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Throw in the missed cuts at Muirfield Village and Shinnecock Hills, and Spieth has made it to the last leg of a six-event stretch that has included only one off week and, to date, zero chances to contend come Sunday.

“I think here this week, the key for me is just to get out in the first round and try not to do too much,” Spieth said. “I mean, 90-plus percent of the tournaments the last two years I’ve thrown out my chances to win a golf tournament on Thursday. I’ve had too much to do from here on.”

That was certainly the case last week on Long Island, where Spieth’s hopes for a fourth major title evaporated well before course conditions became a focal point over the weekend. He was 4 over through his first two holes and spent much of the next 34 stuck in a fit of frustration. He gave himself a glimmer of hope with four late birdies Friday followed by a pair of bogeys that snuffed it out with equal speed.

Spieth has continued to preach patience throughout the year, but there’s no getting around some eye-popping stats; he's 188th on Tour this year in strokes gained: putting and 93rd in fairways hit. It can foster a pressure to find a cure-all in any given week, especially given how quickly he got a middling summer back on track last year.

“It’s something that you fight, sure,” Spieth said. “It’s been that way just about every tournament except Muirfield, because then you go to the U.S. Open and think you don’t even have to shoot under par to win this golf tournament. So as much as that kind of comes into your head, it’s not bothering me this time. I’m going to try and have fun, and make progress.”

After this week, Spieth will have some down time with family before making the trip overseas to Carnoustie. He plans to have a few private dinners accompanied by the claret jug, one last toast to last year’s success before turning the trophy back over to the R&A.

But even Spieth admitted that as it pertains to his chances to follow in Brooks Koepka’s footsteps by successfully defending a major title, he’ll be greatly aided by working his way into the mix this weekend. It represents the last chance in this early-summer swing to get his name back on the leaderboard, an opportunity to light fire to a pedestrian campaign like he did a year ago.

No pressure.

“It’s your basic stuff that sometimes gets off, that the harder you try to get them back on sometimes, the worse it gets,” Spieth said. “It can be frustrating, or you can just kind of wait for it to come to you. I think I’m OK with where things are, whether it’s the rest of this year or next year. I feel like there are good scores coming.”