Kevin Kisner watches his drive off the second tee during the final round at the RSM Classic golf tournament, Sunday, Nov. 22, 2015, in St. Simons Island, Ga. (AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton)
Stephen B. Morton
November 23, 2015

ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. (AP) The question to Kevin Kisner sounded like a trap, even though it was grounded in truth.

Does he feel like a player who is top 20 in the world?

Hardly anyone knew Kisner going into this year. He tied for fourth at Sea Island a year ago for his best finish ever on the PGA Tour. He ended the year at No. 236 in the world. In three full PGA Tour seasons, he only kept his card once.

One year later, Kisner is a different player.

When he blew away the field Sunday at Sea Island to win the RSM Classic by six shots for his first PGA Tour victory, no one was surprised.

He easily could have won at Hilton Head except that Jim Furyk birdied both holes in a playoff to beat him. He probably should have won The Players Championship except for that birdie putt on the 18th that somehow stayed out of the cup. He matched Rickie Fowler shot-for-shot in a three-hole playoff, and Fowler finally prevailed by making his third birdie of the day on the island-green 17th hole at Sawgrass.

Kisner wasn't winning. He wasn't losing, either.

And he wasn't about to panic over whether he would ever win on tour.

''Never crossed my mind,'' Kisner said. ''Because in my previous four years on tour, I never felt like I had the game to win. I wasn't playing well enough to win. When I did finish up near the lead, it was kind of back door, shoot pretty well on Sunday to get up there. This year, I saw strides where I'm leading coming into Saturday or taking the leader early in the week or having a chance on Sunday.

''I knew if I kept playing that way I was going to win one sooner or later.''

And so after four runner-up finishes - and the first player since Horton Smith in 1937 to lose three times in a playoff in one year - Kisner took a three-shot lead and ran with it. An 8-iron to 6 feet for birdie on the par-3 second hole gave him a four-shot lead, and no one got closer the rest of the way.

He made five birdies on the front nine for a 30 and a six-shot lead. He didn't miss a green until the 16th hole. All he wanted was a big lead going to the 18th, and five shots was more than enough.

Top 20?

Patrick Reed made that topic popular when he declared himself one of the top five players in the world after he won at Doral, which at the time was his third win in seven month. Reed still has yet to crack the top 10, moving to No. 13 this week.

Kisner, a 31-year-old from South Carolina, moved up to No. 17 in the world. So yes, he is top 20 in the world. And yes, he feels like one.

''If I play the way I have since Hilton Head, I feel like a top 20 player,'' he said. ''Absolutely.''

Kevin Chappell, whose two late birdies for a 67 allowed him to win the B-Flight at Sea Island, was not about to argue. Asked what he took out of being in contention, Chappell said he learned there are ''really good players'' on the tour and ''Kevin Kisner can golf his ball.''

''Doesn't have any weaknesses,'' Chappell said. ''He drives it plenty long. His iron play is phenomenal. When he is making putts he is tough to beat, and we've obviously seen that. He's been in contention a lot this year. This week when he's shooting 128 (64-64) on the weekends, pretty tough to beat.''

Graeme McDowell, whose late bogey gave him a 67 and dropped him into third place, had never played with Kisner until Sunday.

''Didn't realize just how steady he was,'' McDowell said. ''He played really aggressive today for a guy who has never won a golf tournament. I was thinking if I could get a couple under (par) early on that I might have some sort of a short. But he closed the door early on. And it was impressive.''

Kisner's game began to turn around when Scott Brown, his good friend at Palmetto Golf Club in Aiken, South Carolina, suggested he meet with swing coach John Tillery. The changes haven't been overnight, but they have been pointing in the right direction, leading to a moment like Sea Island.

Kisner is not geared toward goals but the process.

Even so, he would love to play under Davis Love III in the Ryder Cup next year. He can't wait to tee it up at the Masters, a course he has played a few dozen times from growing up across the state line in Aiken.

His offseason just got one week shorter because of his victory. He'll start at Kapalua for the Hyundai Tournament of Champions. The field in Maui figures to be its strongest in years with the potential for 10 out of the top 20 in the world.

And yes, that includes Kevin Kisner.

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