For the Aiken golf crowd, the weekend was almost déjà vu all over again.
Fresh off securing his first victory at the Web.com Tour event in Mexico on Sunday, former USC Aiken golfer Matt Atkins was busy refreshing his PGA Tour app for updates on Palmetto Golf Club partners Kevin Kisner and Scott Brown trying to close out the newly minted team event in New Orleans.
“How crazy is this if they were to win,” Atkins thought as the longtime friends were making a scorching weekend charge that ended up a near miss after a four-hole playoff Monday. “It would be just like it was four years ago.”
In 2013, the same three protagonists reached a similar confluence of golfing rhythm. On March 10, Aiken native Kisner earned his Web.com Tour breakthrough victory on Chile about one hour before Brown, his junior golf buddy from North Augusta and former USC Aiken star, broke his PGA Tour maiden in Puerto Rico.
Two days later, then Pacers senior Atkins won at the Cleveland Golf Palmetto Intercollegiate nearly simultaneous to Kisner and Brown returning home to Palmetto to celebrate their mutual successes.
“What’s funny is my last kind of big win was in college was that same weekend,” Atkins said. “I remember seeing Kisner on the 18th green and he’d just got back from winning and Scott Brown was on his way home from Puerto Rico.”
It was nearly the perfect Aiken sequel when Kisner chipped in for eagle from 95 feet in near darkness on the final hole Sunday to cap a 12-under best ball round and force a playoff Monday morning against the team of Jonas Blixt and Cameron Smith. Unfortunately, neither Kisner nor Brown could buy a birdie putt in four playoff holes to end up finishing runner-up.
“We had a great time, man, that was a great format,” Kisner said. “Fun to play with (Brown) in the heat. Having a chance to win is always fun. Didn’t get it done but we’ll be back next year.”
This summer, you might see all three pros playing together at Palmetto. Atkins, who graduated from USC Aiken in 2013, just bought a house in North Augusta and plans to move in after his July 1 wedding to Jill Erwin in Kentucky.
“Really excited to come back to the area,” Atkins said. “Palmetto is my favorite golf course and being able to play there every day in college was a huge treat for all of us. I felt like I got a lot better in my years there and excited to come back and call that home. Also excited to have other players in the area who have a bunch of experience on PGA Tour – Brown, Kisner, Wesley Bryan and Matt NeSmith.
Atkins took a huge step toward joining all the local affiliates on the PGA Tour with his three-shot victory in the El Bosque Mexico Championship on Sunday. His first win in three seasons on the Web.com Tour vaulted him from 87th to No. 6 on the money list, just $5,000 behind another former Pacer Roberto Diaz who ranks No. 3. The top 25 players on the Web.com money list when the regular season ends in August are guaranteed PGA Tour cards.
“I’m sitting at No. 6 right now but there’s so much season left that doesn’t mean anything,” Atkins said. “Just means I’m ahead of the game but not that the season’s over and I can relax and cruise into the top 25. The higher you finish, the better it’s going to be in terms of eligibility on the PGA Tour.”
Atkins understands what he’s up against. At this time last year, he was inside the top 25 after a runner-up and T4 two early-season events in Colombia. But he missed 12 of the last 17 cuts to drift to 32nd on the final money list.
“I was inside the top 25 for most of last year as well and unfortunately I didn’t finish there,” he said. “But I didn’t win last year and I knew every time somebody won an event they’d pass me on the money list. So for me, being in a similar situation, my goal would be to win the money list because I know how important that fully exempt spot is.”
It may have seemed like Atkins’ victory came out of nowhere after missing the cut in five of the first six events in the fractured early 2017 schedule. He shot 77-78 in his most recent start before Mexico. But after years of mostly working on his own, he started last month studying footwork and weight transfer with Robert Merrill Jr., who teaches a system known as Athletic Motion Golf.
“I love that concept of being athletic and not complicating things too much,” Atkins said of his new instructor. “I think he really helped me make the game a little easier. … I only made one cut previous to this but I sure felt like my game was in good shape and I was going to play well sometime soon.”
He certainly made it seem easy in his first real opportunity to win. He birdied three of the last five holes Saturday to take a one-stroke lead into the final round and then closed the field out with a bogey-free, four-under 68 on Sunday. Having seen Diaz lose a clubhouse lead in Colombia in February when Ethan Tracy holed out for eagle from 101 yards in the last hole to force a playoff and win in sudden death, Atkins considered “no lead big enough” on Sunday.
“That’s what made me have the mindset that I had,” Atkins said of Diaz’ near miss. “Even when I had a three- or four-shot lead, I didn’t want to let one get away so I grinded over every shot. I tried to get the biggest lead I could because I knew winning wasn’t going to be easy. I didn’t want it to come down to the last hole or the last shot. I wanted the freedom of walking up 18 without a whole lot of pressure because I thought that would be the easiest way to get my first win. Because it’s a crazy game and anything could happen.”
It was almost crazy enough for Palmetto to celebrate another perfect golf sweep. This time next year, Kisner and Brown might be competing against Atkins and Diaz on the PGA Tour as the Aiken golf posse grows.