AUGUSTA — Kevin Kisner was in definite need of some new Masters memories. The old ones, while quaint, were taking on a certain eternal-frat-boy flavor.
“I liked to go over there and sit near No. 16 and gamble on closest to the pin with my buddies, and make them go get beers when I won,” Kisner recalled last month. “I never went to go watch golf. I went over there to have fun with those guys.”
Coming of age a mere 20 miles from the pearly gates of Augusta National, just across the state line in Aiken, S.C., Kisner arrives this year to experience the tournament for the first time from inside the green ropes. That’s where the grown-up memories are made.
Finally, it is someone else’s turn to bet on him sticking one tight on the yawning deck that is the 16th green.
Now, he’ll be sharing one special day not with his bros, but rather with his 2-year-old daughter, Kate, who has her little white caddie coveralls all ready for Wednesday’s par-3 Masters contest.
His parents put his Masters invitation in the only frame they had available — the one with the cross on it — and thought it entirely appropriate. As Kisner’s mother, Christy, told the Augusta Chronicle, “I said we prayed for this, so I might as well put it in there.”
And come Thursday, when he’s standing on the No. 1 tee box, preparing to hit his first drive of his first Masters, thoughts of the years spent thrashing away on some third-tier tour undoubtedly following him there, Kisner will know that’s not just the pollen in his throat.
A preview of what likely awaits him there comes from his former UGA teammate Chris Kirk.
“I’m sure it’s really, really special to him, but it’s really, really special to everybody the first time you make the Masters,” Kirk said.
“It was everything I thought it could be (his first year, 2014) and then some. Once you’ve been out here (on tour) for a little while you don’t really get nervous anymore on the first tee. You get nervous sometimes coming down the stretch trying to win a tournament. But not on the first tee anymore. And I definitely did there.”
It will be a 20-minute or so commute for Kisner from his driveway to Magnolia Lane, the shady approach for all Masters contestants. But it has taken him nearly a decade to make the drive.
Being the first four-time All American at Georgia, and a key player on the 2005 national championship team meant next to nothing once Kisner started doing this gig for money. Kevin Kisner or Kevin “Tin Cup” Costner? The results on the course were distressingly similar.
Before the 2014-15 wraparound PGA Tour season — in which Kisner had three runner-up finishes, including a dramatic Player’s Championship playoff — he made 38 PGA Tour cuts, and missed 37.
He spent three years playing whatever lonely tour event would have him. If that meant driving all night from a Hooters Tour stop for Monday qualifying at a Nationwide event, then gas up the car, get some beef jerky, and let’s ride.
Flash to a two-month span this season, when he claimed his first PGA Tour victory on Sea Island, finished top 5 in two other tournaments and momentarily rested at the top of the FedEx Cup standings. He’s currently No. 4.
His world ranking as of April 5, 2014 — 410th. His ranking on April 5, 2016 — 22nd.
“I went from never caring about (world rankings) to where it can change my schedule immensely just by playing better and moving up in those world rankings. Now we pay attention, pick weeks that I know I can play well to keep my world ranking where it is,” Kisner said.
Who were those guys paired with Kisner at the Honda Classic? Oh, that was Phil Mickelson and Adam Scott.
Who was that fellow teeing off with Kisner in the first two rounds of the Arnold Palmer Invitational? Wasn’t that Rory McIlroy?
He’s keeping such better company these days.
Kisner laughs when asked if, just three years ago, he could envision himself playing in the Masters. “Heck no. I’d have never thought I’d get there the way I was playing,” he said. “As I’ve gotten better and played with the big names and played in majors, I realized I can compete on that stage.”
And he laughs some more when asked if he could have made it here without going through the trauma of a total swing rebuild, overseen by Eatonton-based instructor John Tillery. “Heck no. I’d be selling insurance now or something along those lines.” He had to find a way to get longer and straighter, or a cubicle beckoned.
He can laugh a lot these days.
After all, he gets to sleep at home, use his local knowledge to dodge the worst of the Masters traffic and even be largely unaffected by outside demands for badges to the tournament. “The cool part of growing up in Aiken is everybody realizes how difficult it is to get a badge, so nobody’s really asking me. They understand,” Kisner said.
Having been on the course dozens of times in his life as “a patron,” Kisner is getting a feel for how much better it is to go there as “a player.” In the past, he’d have all his fun in the early rounds and then bunker in back home to watch the Masters weekend on television. That’s another pattern he’d like to break now.