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Why Chris Kirk's final-round 72 at Bay Hill was particularly clutch

March 06, 2022

Sam Greenwood

Early on the back nine of his final round at Bay Hill, Chris Kirk had a legitimate chance to take a stranglehold on the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Then again, so did just about everybody who was within a few shots of Viktor Hovland's lead.

But Kirk's failed run at the lead was particularly noticeable because of how great his birdie chances were on the 10th and 11th holes. Unfortunately, much like last week at the Honda Classic, his putter failed him. The four-time PGA Tour winner missed birdie putts of four and seven feet at Nos. 10 and 11, which had to be mentally crushing given how hard birdies were to come by during Sunday's carnage-filled final round.

Rather than hang his head, though, Kirk stayed on task, making back-to-back birdies at the 12th and 13th holes to reach five under. He gave them both back by dropping shots at 14 and 15, but was able to par in to finish with an even-par 72 on Sunday, good enough for a T-5 finish.

For some, a T-5 after having a very good chance to win on the back nine could be viewed as a disappointment. But for Kirk, his play was extremely clutch. The Arnold Palmer Invitational is one of 16 events in the Open Qualifying Series, and this week's API had three exemptions up for grabs for players who finished in the top 10 who were otherwise not exempt for the 2022 Open at St Andrews. With his finish, Kirk earned one of the three available spots, getting him into the Open for a second straight season, something he's never done in his career.

As of now, it's the only major Kirk is exempt into for 2022. He still has time to earn a Masters invitation, though it will require him winning one of the four full-field PGA Tour events between now and Augusta, or cracking the top 50 of the Official World Golf Ranking before March 28. That could be the most likely route, as Kirk is expected to rise from 94th to 79th after this week, according to OWGR Twitter guru Nosferatu. Kirk is into next week's Players Championship already, and he still has plenty of time to qualify for both the PGA Championship and the U.S. Open should he meet a variety of criteria before either of those events.

Kirk was not alone in qualifying for St Andrews on Sunday. Talor Gooch, who was tied for the lead after 54 holes, shot a final-round five-over 77, but that was still enough to tie for seventh. Like Kirk, he also will be playing in his second straight Open Championship this July. No one grabbed the third and final spot, as every other player who finished in the top 10 was already exempt into the Open.