Persisters are a subpopulation of bacteria that are not killed by antibiotics even though they lack genetic resistance. Here we provide evidence that persisters can manifest as small colony variants (SCVs) in clinical infections. We analyze growth kinetics of Staphylococcus aureus sampled from in vivo conditions and in vitro stress conditions that mimic growth in host compartments. We report that SCVs arise as a result of a long lag time, and that this phenotype emerges de novo during the growth phase in various stress conditions including abscesses and acidic media. We further observe that long lag time correlates with antibiotic usage. These observations suggest that treatment strategies should be carefully tailored to address bacterial persisters in clinics.