KAPALUA, Hawaii (AP) — Kevin Kisner has a motto for 2016 that surely is unlike that of any other player on the PGA Tour.
Don't be Ronda Rousey.
"Make sure we don't do so many commercials, get caught up in celebrity and then get knocked out in the second round," his swing coach, John Tillery, said with a laugh. The reference was to the UFC women's bantamweight title fight in Australia two months ago when Rousey was floored by a kick to the head by Holly Holm.
Kisner is nowhere near that level of celebrity.
But for all the talk about encores going into the new year — Jordan Spieth, Jason Day — that should apply to Kisner.
The 31-year-old from South Carolina might be the best golfer hardly anyone knows.
One year ago, he was No 236 in the world after he narrowly kept his PGA Tour card while overhauling a swing that had gotten so out of whack he nearly quit the game. Kisner goes into the new year at No. 17 in the world, and it was no accident.
Kisner earned a small slice of PGA Tour history as the only player to lose three playoffs in one season without winning a tournament. And it's not as if he couldn't handle the pressure. He birdied the 18th hole in regulation and in the playoff at Hilton Head before Jim Furyk beat him on the second extra hole. He matched birdies with Rickie Fowler until losing to a birdie on the fourth playoff hole at The Players Championship.
He also lost in a four-man playoff at The Greenbrier, and he was runner-up a fourth time in 2015 at the HSBC Champions in Shanghai. In the final tournament of the calendar year (part of a new PGA Tour season), Kisner showed his moxie by turning a three-shot lead into a six-shot victory at Sea Island.
Kisner thus fulfilled a pledge to Tillery when he sought his help at the low point of his golfing career.
"All I ever told J.T. was to get me in position where I could hit it a little better and I can win out here," Kisner said.
He resumes the PGA Tour season at Kapalua as the leader in the FedEx Cup because of his win at Sea Island and second-place finish in Shanghai. Still to be determined is whether last year was as good as it gets or if the best is still to come.
What makes Kisner intriguing is his personality. He is loaded with confidence and grit, but it's hidden behind his straight-shooting, homespun Southern nature. With a slight build, he doesn't stand out among the new power regime in golf. And he understands why only the hardiest of golf fans would know him.
"This tour doesn't market the guy that finishes 111th," Kisner said after opening with a 69 in the first round at Kapalua. "You have to win and be in the hunt for people to know who you are. I was a bottom feeder barely keeping my card."
He has the pedigree, even if his career record to this point suggests journeyman.
Kisner was the first player at Georgia to be an All-American all four years, but he lost his way as a pro. He didn't come close to keeping his card his first two years on the PGA Tour. And even after he won on the Web.com Tour in early 2013 — in effect, assuring a trip back to the big leagues — he knew was going the wrong way.
And that's when he went to Tillery, whom he knew through Scott Brown, his close friend and neighbor in Aiken, South Carolina.
"When I went to see him, I had already locked up my tour card and I was ready to quit," Kisner said. "It was that bad."
Tillery had seen plenty of him through Brown, and he had a clear picture of what needed to change when Kisner hired him. Kisner said his pivot was bad and his arms didn't fit in sequence with his body, making his swing steep.
"To most of the golf world, he just showed up one day," Tillery said. "But there was a solid five to six months of grinding through changes. He was determined to stay on the path and know he was working on the right things. And he had a lot of hidden qualities being a good putter, a super good guy and he believed. As soon has he got in position where he believed he swung it good and could drive it play, that confidence of his just poured on top of all that."
Kisner is more about the process than the goals. It didn't shake him when he kept getting into playoffs and seeing someone else hold the trophy. The only two goals he mentioned for 2016 were to play in the Ryder Cup and his debut in the Masters.
"I love Jordan's quote about encores meaning the show is over," he said. "It's not over. If I keep playing the way I'm playing and getting in contention, that's what I want to do. I love having a chance to win."
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