News & ToursMay 25, 2015

Chris Kirk is far less boring than he'll let on

The problem for the CBS team on Sunday, as the Colonial wound to a close, was that they didn't have anything to say about Chris Kirk--good or bad. By the time he stood over a seven-footer on 18 that would secure a one-stroke win over Jordan Spieth, they'd settled for descriptions like "steady," while admitting a slight lack of "flair." Even the euphemisms were bland, and their conundrum was apparent: Golf's bright young wonder child waited in the wings, literally overlooking the green, and the man about to beat him was hopelessly boring.

And it's not like Kirk took great pains to disprove them. When he sunk that seven-footer, to the secret chagrin of everyone, he gave a fist pump that fell somewhere between awkward and mundane. He wore a thin smile for the camera as he played with his two young sons and watched Ian Poulter fail to force a playoff. He was cordial to David Feherty, and he answered every question without complaint, but nobody would call him engaging. (You can judge a player's charisma by the length of Feherty's interviews--the Kirk conversation was short.)

Related: Chris Kirk underscores why Ryder Cup snub was a mistake

This is why, despite the fact that he turned 30 less than three weeks ago and has been ranked inside the top 25 for almost a full year, you never hear Kirk's name mentioned among the surging batch of millennials who have begun to dominate the sport--he may have just left his twenties, but he looks and acts like a 40-something who invests wisely and will never endure a midlife crisis.

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Ask around about Kirk, though, and you'll hear a different refrain: This guy is stubborn. The white-bread looks, the retreating manner, and the slight nasal quality of his voice all predict that he'll wilt like a shrinking violet under pressure. But first impressions with Kirk are a red herring--on a golf course, he's relentless.

It seemed to fit with my perception from interacting with Kirk in 2014--his reserve wasn't the product of a man with nothing to say, but an active refusal to deviate from a path he had set for himself a long time ago--as far back as childhood. That word, stubborn, also describes him on the course when he's in contention--his demeanor rarely changes, and he forges ahead with his mechanical swing and his unbending will, scorching the earth as he goes--unspectacular, unrepentant, and blindingly effective.

"Stubborn" explains why he's the rare PGA Tour pro who refuses to hire a full-time caddie, instead using a small rotation in order to keep things fresh. "Stubborn" is how he beat Rory McIlroy over two days at the Deutsche Bank last fall, at a time when nobody could beat Rory McIlroy. "Stubborn" is the word for his absolute refusal to speak a positive word about the Ryder Cup in the aftermath of that win, when even a modicum of enthusiasm would likely have made him a very attractive captain's pick to Tom Watson.

And "stubborn" is the reason why he's now won four PGA Tour events, which puts him among the best of his age group--when Chris Kirk is in contention on Sunday, it's a good bet that he'll bludgeon his stubborn way to a stubborn victory.

The relevant biographical details:

  1. When Kirk was eight years old, his parents took him to a junior golf clinic near his childhood home in the Atlanta suburb of Woodstock, GA. At the end of the clinic, all the kids competed in a three-hole tournament. The holes were shortened to 150 yards, and there, the eight-year-old Kirk registered his first career win. They gave him a small trophy for his efforts, but it's a fair bet that the organizer weren't aware of the obsession they'd just spawned.

  2. In first grade, sick of being called by his middle name Brandon' (a family custom observed mostly in the south), he told his teacher and classmates that he wanted to go by his first name, Chris.' He didn't just ask--he insisted--and from that day forth he was Chris to his friends. Interestingly, he never demanded the same change from his family, and remained Brandon' at home. By the time he was in college, his mother would often ask Georgia head coach Chris Haack how Brandon' was doing, and Haack would give her a report on Kirk's roommate, future Tour pro Brendon Todd. Confusion abounded.

  3. Kirk's passion was so extreme that his parents actually worried that he'd gone over the deep end. His intense focus and natural shyness meant he had virtually no social life in high school--he read golf books and studied famous swings instead--and as long as he managed to keep his grades up, his parents gave him free license to follow his obsession wherever it led. Even the picture on their mantle came back to golf--Kirk as a sophomore in high school, with long sideburns and braces, standing beside Davis Love III at a junior event.

  4. Kirk looked like a perfect recruit for Chris Haack at Georgia, though Gary and Kim warned the coach that their son was hard-headed--which was confirmed almost immediately.

Unlike most coaches, Haack runs a complex qualifying system to determine who will represent Georgia in tournaments. As a freshman trying to make the big tournaments, Kirk came close time and again before faltering at Athens' Jennings Mill Country Club in the final round. There, Haack watched him reach the verge week after week, only to attempt to use driver on the par-5 16th, a high risk/reward hole with out-of-bounds markers surrounding the narrow fairway. Even when he found himself in position to make the cut, Kirk would opt for driver instead of a safe four-iron, inevitably hitting out of bounds, making seven or eight, and missing out by a stroke.

"You would think he'd learn his lesson," Haack recalled, "but the next qualifying event, he'd do the same thing again. You'd say to him, have you ever thought about backing down on that hole?' But he was so stubborn that he wouldn't do it. It was like he was out to prove to you that the driver was the right play, so he went through almost an entire fall with this happening to him every week."

Finally, not knowing what else to do, Haack deputized him as an assistant coach and took him to the Jerry Pate in Alabama. They set up shop at a drivable par-4 on the back nine, where Kirk's job was to advise each player off the tee. All of them, of course, hit it everywhere except the spot Kirk had pointed out. He came back to Haack, steaming.

"These guys won't listen!" he grumbled, missing the irony.

  1. In 2010, playing on the Nationwide Tour, Kirk traveled to Fingal, Australia to play in the Moonah Classic. He had never won a professional tournament, but after making birdies on 14 and 15 on Sunday, he led the field by two strokes. Three pars, or even two pars and one bogey, and the tournament was his. Instead, he tried to be too aggressive, and bogeyed 16 and 17. Now he was tied with Jim Herman, but Kirk hit a pinpoint approach on 18 and had a four-foot putt to win the tournament outright. He missed.

When he emerged from his mini-depression, he internalized Haack's lesson: In certain situations, it's okay to play conservative golf.

Four months later, at the Fort Smith Classic in Arkansas, he was there again: A three-shot lead with three holes to play on Sunday. There was nobody on the course to challenge him; just like in Australia, he could only beat himself. He remembered that awful Sunday, and he took the lesson to heart--he aimed for the middle of the greens, two-putted for pars, and tapped in on 18 for his first professional victory.

And we know the rest--the four wins, the triumph over Rory.

Like most intrinsic qualities, Kirk's stubbornness can be an asset and a detriment. When he won the Deutsche Bank, he adamantly refused to show any enthusiasm for the Ryder Cup, to the point that the AP's Doug Ferguson jokingly asked if he would make something up.

"I don't know," he told me later. "Maybe it'd be a better story if I was like Keegan [Bradley], and was freaking out about it and really, really excited and going nuts, but I'm just not."

Finally, I understood--if Watson wanted to pick him, great, but he wasn't about to kiss the ring. Even by PGA Tour standards, Kirk is a capital-I Individual, and he's not interested in faking anything, for anyone.

The CBS announcers at the Colonial politely dodged the word "boring," but my guess is that the label wouldn't bother Kirk. He has self-belief, and a professional golfer can't ask for a better gift, because it girds him against criticism and doubt. It's not that Kirk was *destined *to make the putt at Colonial. It's just that, unlike you or I, and unlike the majority of his fellow pros, he was too stubborn in that white-knuckle moment to believe he could miss.

So walk away Jordan, from your perch overlooking the 18th, and take solace in that green jacket. This year, the tartan version belongs to the hard-headed Georgian--the man with the thin smile, who is far less boring than he'll ever let on.

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