ST. Augustine, Fla. – Chris Kirk wasn’t supposed to be here.
A four-time PGA Tour winner with millions of dollars in the bank isn’t supposed to mingle with those still looking to break through. The guy who was technically first alternate at this week’s RBC Heritage might have ordinarily parked on the South Carolina beach and taken his chances of cracking the field at Harbour Town, or simply spent an extra week at home.
But the reason Kirk wasn’t supposed to be holding the trophy at the Korn Ferry Tour’s King & Bear Classic, moments after closing out his first professional win in more than five years, has more to do with the dark path he successfully navigated a year ago.
It takes strength to ask for help, and that’s what the 35-year-old did last May when he took an indefinite leave from professional golf to address issues with alcohol abuse and depression. Once ranked as high as 16th in the world, he felt his world spiraling both on and off the course and knew he needed to act.
“I’m a completely different person than I was two years ago,” Kirk said. “When you’re faced with a situation where you’re completely out of control of your own life, it changes things.”
Kirk ultimately missed seven months of tournament competition, returning in November at Mayakoba. He explained that he spent more than three of those months without ever touching a club, devoting his attention to personal recovery and investing his time at home with his wife and three young sons. Golf went on the back burner to the point where Kirk didn’t just see a scenario where he might never win again – he envisioned potentially walking away from the game entirely.
“I recall thinking I wanted to do something where if I really worked hard, I’m going to succeed,” Kirk said. “In professional golf, working hard is a prerequisite, for sure. Everybody out here works really hard, but that guarantees you absolutely nothing. So that was one of the feelings I was having, that I didn’t want to beat my head against the wall anymore.”
Eventually, the inner desire that fueled his previous PGA Tour success returned. His game quickly rounded into form, even while only playing once a week during the Tour’s unexpected break. Time at home with his boys, on his 40-acre estate in Athens, Georgia, was good for his soul.
So he showed up to this week’s event in Florida in relative anonymity, ranked No. 522 in the world. And on a course where low scores were abundant all week long, his 54-hole streak without a single bogey still left him four shots off the lead heading into the final round.
But Kirk is as unflappable as they come, and Saturday’s round was no exception. It took him only seven holes to turn a four-shot deficit into a two-shot lead. Even after his lone stumble of the week (a double bogey on No. 10) made things a little more interesting down the stretch, he was able to get up and down for birdie from just off the 18th green to close out a final-round 67 and a one-shot win over Justin Lower.
It’s Kirk’s first victory anywhere since Colonial in 2015, and his first top-10 finish in more than two years. But more importantly, it’s a high water mark in the post-recovery phase of what he now hopes will be a long career.
“I think it just means more, with everything that he’s gone through,” said caddie Michael Cromie, who like Kirk played college golf at Georgia. “He took it all on himself, taking a step back from the game. And then with the virus starting, it was like, ‘Man, I just forced myself off for 6-7 months, and now I’m off again.’ So he just wanted to play, and it’s pretty cool that he was able to get it done in his second start back.”
Kirk returned from hiatus last week at Colonial, which he described as his favorite course on Tour. But in walking the range and returning inside the ropes, he noticed that something was missing. The stoic, inner confidence, the voice that once assured him that he was one of the best players in any field while racking up wins and finishing second in the 2014 FedExCup, was silent.
“I didn’t feel like I was one of the best players there,” he admitted. “When I was playing really well and in the top 50 in the world and winning tournaments, I never felt that way. I’m never going to be a cocky person that’s going to say anything, but I had an immense belief in what I was doing with my game, and that’s kind of been missing lately.”
With an oversized Heritage field rendering his status as first alternate effectively useless, Kirk could have taken a week off and spent more time at home. His PGA Tour status is not in question, as he’ll be back among his usual ranks in Detroit in two weeks.
But instead he opted to drop down a level and roll the dice with an unexpected start in his first Korn Ferry event since 2010. What resulted was a glimpse into his potential, and what he hopes will become a breakthrough victory that could fuel further results as he continues his road to recovery both on and off the course.
“I’m hoping that some of the shots I hit down the stretch today will give me a bit more of that when I return to the PGA Tour, because I know my good is plenty good enough,” Kirk said. “It’s just a matter of seeing it and feeling it, and having some of that momentum carry over.”