The swing that changed everything
May 03, 2016
By Sean Martin, PGATOUR.COM
Kevin Kisner was texting his friend from the fairway of a Web.com Tour event in the summer of 2013, knowing that he’d need help as soon as he arrived home in Aiken, South Carolina.
“I flew home and went straight to see him,” Kisner said.
That friend was John Tillery, the swing coach who helped transform Kisner into one of the world’s top players. Kisner has risen more than 350 spots in the Official World Golf Ranking since that week, currently sitting at No. 22. He qualified for his first TOUR Championship by Coca-Cola in 2015 after failing to crack the FedExCup’s top 100 in his first three PGA TOUR seasons.
It was this time last year that Kisner started to display his improved form. He lost a playoff to Jim Furyk at last year’s RBC Heritage. Kisner was runner-up again at THE PLAYERS Championship, where he was part of a three-man playoff won by Rickie Fowler. A third runner-up finish came at The Greenbrier Classic, where again Kisner was beaten in a playoff. This one was won by Danny Lee.
Kisner was the first man since Horton Smith in 1937 to lose three playoffs in one season. This season, Kisner won his first PGA TOUR title at The RSM Classic in November and was runner-up in the World Golf Championships-HSBC Champions. He’s 5th in the FedExCup.
His recent success is a far cry from where Kisner was three years earlier.
“I was ready to retire,” Kisner said. “I was hitting shanks from the middle of the fairway.
“I’m very much a realist. I don’t lie to myself about where my game is. I knew (my swing) was very poor at the time, and I knew the way I was hitting it, there was no way I could come play a PGA TOUR course and compete. I had already been through that in my career and I didn’t want to do it again.”
Tillery already worked with Kisner’s good friend, 2013 Puerto Rico Open champion Scott Brown. Kisner and Brown share a home course, historic Palmetto Golf Club in Aiken. Tillery is the director of instruction at Cuscowilla Golf Club in Eatonton, Georgia.
Kisner took his first lesson from Tillery the day after arriving home from that Web.com Tour event in 2013. They met for about three hours. Tillery didn’t offer Kisner any quick fixes, instead telling him that he would take some time to devise a plan to fix Kisner’s swing flaws.
They needed to fix Kisner’s backswing pivot, which led to faults in Kisner’s transition from his backswing to downswing. His poor transition led to the shots that Kisner hated most, a block well right of his target and a shot off the club’s heel, which sometimes turned into a shank.
Kisner’s swing changes have helped him hit the ball more solidly and produce a ball flight that is less impacted by the wind.
He was 49th in strokes gained: tee-to-green (+0.34 per round) and 34th in driving accuracy (66.9 percent) last season. Compare that to the 2013-14 season, when he ranked 110th (-0.79 per round) and 76th (65.3 percent) in those categories. That’s an improvement in tee-to-green play of 1.13 shots per round, which translates to approximately 4.5 shots per tournament.
“I remember at (the 2015 RBC Heritage), hitting those shots down the stretch, shots I never would have hit before to those difficult par-3s,” Kisner said. He birdied the par-3 14th, the third-hardest par-3 on TOUR last season, in the final round. It was one of just three birdies on that hole in the final round.
Change is difficult, but the process has paid off.
“It was brutal,” Kisner said. “It was a lot of hours in the hitting bay. A lot of sweat, a lot of club-throwing, a lot of complaining, but we always knew we were on the right track.”
Here’s a closer look at Kisner’s swing changes:
Kisner used to turn his hips too quickly at the start of the backswing. His weight stayed on his left foot instead of shifting to his right side. At the top of his backswing, Kisner’s upper body tilted too far away from the target.
“His sequence of how his body moved was out of whack,” Tillery said. “As soon as the club started swinging back, he’d start turning his hips and moving the bottom of his spine forward. He’d tilt his torso too far to the right to have some sense of getting behind the ball since his weight wasn’t shifting to the right. It got him in a spot where he couldn’t have any lateral motion (back to his left side) in the downswing.”
Tillery set an alignment rod in the ground against Kisner’s right hip to help him feel his weight shifting to the right during the backswing. Kisner wants to feel like he’s putting pressure into his right foot as the club starts swinging. This keeps his right hip pressing against the alignment rod until his left arm is parallel to the ground.
Kisner’s improper body motion on his backswing made it impossible for him to make the proper transition to the downswing.
Because Kisner didn’t shift his weight properly in the backswing, he was unable to shift his weight to his left side at the start of the downswing. “He would spin out and lock his left leg prematurely,” Tillery said about Kisner’s downswing.
This led to a downswing that was too narrow and an impact that was too steep. The club shaft was too vertical on the downswing and the clubface was open in relation to the path. That’s why his predominant miss was well to the right.
Now that Kisner is putting more pressure into his right foot early in the backswing and his torso is less tilted to the right, he can shift his weight to the left at the start of the downswing. He does this while maintaining the width of his downswing, which allows the club to swing down on a shallower plane and keeps him from turning his body too fast at the start of the downswing.
“We wanted him to be able to feel some pressure down and into his left foot in transition versus just spinning his hips,” Tillery said.
We often hear players talk of “swinging to the left” through impact. Kisner’s ballstriking has improved as he has learned how to do this.
In his old swing, Kisner’s body turned too quickly during the downswing. “When his left leg would lock early, everything would stop turning and his arms would fly out away from him,” Tillery said. The club traveled too far to the right through impact.
Kisner would throw the club’s heel toward the ball, which would lead to mishits and, unfortunately, an occasional shank.
“Now he’s able to keep his pelvis pushing forward, up and left, and he can get the grip going around the corner,” Tillery said. This means the club, instead of swinging excessively in-to-out, would swing down the target line through impact.
Kisner’s club also is approaching the ball at a shallower angle than in his old swing. Kisner places his Putting Arc, a 3-foot-long plastic training aid, outside of his ball, to train himself to swing the club on a shallower plane and on an in-to-in path. Players can use a 2x4 block of wood or a club to replicate this drill. He had to swing on the proper plane and path to avoid striking the training aid.
Kisner also hits balls with a string elevated a few inches above his ball. The string runs down the target line. He’ll strike the string if his downswing plane is too steep or his club swings too far to the right after impact.