ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. – It was only apropos that Kevin Kisner’s island hoping ended on a blustery Sunday at the RSM Classic.
It was on another island just up the coast from this week’s stop, Hilton Head, where his near-miss madness began, a series of close calls that appeared to reach a crescendo earlier this month when he finished two strokes outside the winner’s circle at the WGC-HSBC Champions.
Throughout it all he never wavered, never worried, never wondered if his time might never come. The way he figured it, the stars would align as long as he kept plodding along on the path he began two years ago with swing coach John Tillery.
When Jim Furyk beat him in a playoff at the RBC Heritage it was a sign his work was moving him in the right direction. When Rickie Fowler outdueled him in extra frames at The Players things appeared to have reached a new level, and when he closed with a 64 in July at the Greenbrier Classic but dropped another playoff to Danny Lee he maintained his resolve that an elusive first PGA Tour title was within reach.
But the WGC-HSBC Champions loss appeared to be a different animal after he began the final round with a share of the lead. Even the most self-confident player can succumb to the internal voices of doubt when faced with repeated negative feedback.
“I hadn't been in that position with that big of a lead. I was as jumpy or ready to go today,” said Kisner, who closed with weekend rounds of 64 at the RSM Classic for a tournament-record 22-under 260 total and a six-stroke victory.
“You know, only thing you can do is win or fail in that position. It’s hard to keep yourself not thinking what if it doesn't work out. So I just wanted to go out and make birdies early and try to keep playing the way I was playing.”
After The Players loss to Fowler, Kisner took solace in the notion that “one day I’m going to fall into one of these things,” but there was no such anti-climactic ending on Sunday.
After starting the final round three strokes clear of Kevin Chappell, Kisner birdied No. 2 from 6 feet, No. 4 from 10 feet, No. 5 from 15 feet, No. 8 from 7 feet and the ninth from 31 feet to turn with a touchdown advantage.
Kisner added an 8-foot par save at the par-5 seventh hole after finding the dunes with his second shot to total 83 feet of putts made for his first nine holes, nearly equaling his total for Saturday’s round.
There would be no cruise control, no playing defense after coming so close so many times this season. Kisner had watched enough players “win” tournaments this year to know better than to play not to lose.
“We were talking on the way home last night and he said, ‘It’s good I have that lead but I know how good these guys are,’” Tillery said. “He’d been here so many times and armored up with all those previous battles.”
Scar tissue can be a funny thing. While defeats are said to make one stronger there is always the possibility that continued failure can chip away at one’s confidence, but that was never an option for Kisner.
It never has been.
When Russell Henley was an 11-year-old attending the University of Georgia junior golf camp, Kisner, who was a freshman on the Bulldog team at the time, was his counselor.
“I remember him telling me, ‘You can’t play golf scared,’” Henley recalled. “I think ‘Kiz’ never has any regrets because he plays so aggressive all the time and just leaves everything out there.”
The best example of that was Kisner’s scrambling par at the seventh hole in the worst of the day’s winds. With Graeme McDowell, who was fresh off a victory last week in Mexico, sizing up a 14-foot birdie putt and the potential for a two-stroke swing, Kisner calmly converted from 8 feet for par.
Tillery, who has been working with Kisner for about two years and is credited with transforming the Tour’s most recent champion into a bona fide ball-striker, said it’s an example of Kisner’s “bulldog-ishness.”
Scott Brown sees that side of Kisner on a regular basis back home in Aiken, S.C., where the two have been friends since they first picked up a club.
“We’re undefeated playing together,” smiled Brown, who introduced Kisner to Tillery. “We’re always partners and always have each other’s back. He’s going to be a strong choice for the Ryder Cup and maybe they should just put me on that team to play with him. We’ll get you three points.”
Because of the revised points list for next year’s U.S. Ryder Cup team, Kisner won’t gain any ground to make the U.S. team for his victory at Sea Island, although he did vault to 17th in the Official World Golf Ranking, and RSM Classic host and U.S. Ryder Cup captain Davis Love III admitted to taking “mental notes" this fall in preparation for next year’s matches.
Until Sunday at Sea Island Resort the defining moment of Kisner’s year may have come on the eve of the final round at The Players when he was asked if he would be intimidated heading out against the likes of Fowler on Sunday.
“If we've gotten here, we've done Tour [Q-School], we've won tournaments. Just because it's a bigger stage doesn't mean we're going to suck all of a sudden,” he said in his signature style.
If his weekend show on the Seaside Course was any indication, just because Kisner finally has that Tour trophy he’s waited so long for doesn’t mean he’s going to be appeased.