ATLANTA – Chris Kirk is determined to make Tom Watson regret his decision, although the soft-spoken Southerner would never admit it.
That’s not his style. Never has been.
“He was so quiet and would never get excited. He’d just go out there and whip your butt,” said Chris Haack, Kirk’s coach when he played for the University of Georgia golf team and the man who announced the FedEx Cup front-runner onto the 18th green late Thursday afternoon.
Warm summer breezes and sweet tea make more noise than Kirk, so when the Ryder Cup frenzy reached its apex at the Deutsche Bank Championship the father of two defaulted to his manufacturer settings.
“I’ve got tickets to the Georgia-Tennessee (football) game that Saturday, so it’s pretty much out of my control,” he said at TPC Boston when asked about the possibility that Watson would make him one of his three captain’s picks for this month’s matches.
Whether that laissez-faire attitude cost Kirk a spot on the U.S. team in Scotland will never be known, but there is no debating the merits of such an approach considering it helped lift him to a two-stroke victory at the Deutsche Bank Championship.
From uncluttered minds come great things.
Similarly, when Kirk was asked this week about the prospect of padding his burgeoning bank account with a $10 million windfall if he were to win the FedEx Cup he took the same long view.
“It wouldn't change much, to be honest with you,” he shrugged in his aloof style. “I just won a million and a half a few weeks ago, and I didn't go buy anything. I'm very comfortable financially and very happy with what I have. I'm not a very extravagant guy.”
What he has become is a very consistent guy.
When Watson announced his picks in New York City two weeks ago he was asked why the young American didn’t get the nod and the captain patiently explained that what he did at TPC Boston was “a snapshot.”
What Kirk is doing this week at East Lake has evolved into a feature film.
After a stress-free opening nine, he hit seven of nine greens on the outward loop and didn’t make a bogey on Day 1. He birdied two of his final four holes to finish with a 4-under 66 to take a share of the lead with Billy Horschel, who he was paired with.
While neither player would have been the favorite to collect this year’s $10 million lottery ticket when the season began last fall, they entered the week perched atop the statistical high ground at Nos. 1 and 2 on the FedEx Cup point list. You can’t win the Tour Championship on Thursday, but with Kirk’s lead on the points list you can go a long way toward etching your name into the silver chalice with a start like he had on Day 1.
But before you label Kirk a flat-liner, he’s not oblivious to what is on the line this week. While the $10 million may not get his attention, winning the FedEx Cup elevates a player to another level and he’s not blind to that reality.
“It’s kind of tough to get your mind off what’s going on here this week,” he admitted in a rare nod to the obvious.
But if the pressure is building behind that calm exterior Kirk isn’t letting on. In fact, the biggest pressure he said he’s facing this week is rounding up enough tickets for his family and friends.
Kirk was born in Atlanta, attended college just down the road in Athens, Ga., and returned home after turning professional. The partisan crowd was evident from the first tee on Thursday when he set out with Horschel, who attended the University of Florida.
“Some of the guys up there were having a little bit of fun, maybe at Billy’s expense a little bit,” smiled Kirk, who ignited the crowd with an 82-foot chip-in for birdie at the 17th hole. “I saw some people I haven’t seen in quite a while. It’s nice having a my hometown crowd behind me a little bit.”
While home-field advantage may be comforting, it’s been Kirk’s play over the last month that steadies a pulse that never seems to rise above resting.
Maybe Kirk’s relaxed demeanor wasn’t Watson’s brand of vodka. Maybe from the captain’s chair it was hard to imagine a rookie delivering on such a stifling stage. But a quarter of the way to the game’s ultimate payday it’s difficult not to imagine the captain second-guessing his choices.
That would never be Kirk’s intention, it’s just not in his DNA, but proving that he has the chops to close on one of the game’s most demanding deadlines would certainly prove a point.