Chris Kirk is proud that alcoholism is a part of his story. Just don't forget what was lost, too
Kevin C. Cox
KAPALUA, Hawaii — There were no tears, no fist pump, no rebel yell to the sky after hitting what he later said was the best shot of his career. There was only a hug with his caddie, Michael Cromie, and a smile on the face of Chris Kirk, and though that doesn’t sound like the world’s greatest celebration it was undoubtedly sincere, expressing the joy Kirk once lost with this game that he promises never to lose again.
On a day when the field did what it wanted with Kapalua, its 54-hole leader did the same, as Kirk made eight birdies and zero mistakes en route to a one-shot win at the season-opening Sentry event over Sahith Theegala.
“It was an unbelievable day,” Kirk said Sunday. “I'm really thankful that I was able to play as well as I did and I was certainly nervous coming into today, and I was able to kind of stay calm and just played really, really solid golf all day.”
Kirk is not one for hyperbole, but really solid doesn’t do his round justice. He hit all but two greens in regulation, and the two times he did miss he managed to get up-and-down for par. Still, a clean card and playing defense was not going to be enough in Round 4, as the Plantation Course yielded a 66.7 scoring average, the lowest for any round on tour since 1983. Kirk provided plenty of fireworks of his own, making the turn in five-under 31.
Except Theegala could not stop making birdies and neither could Jordan Spieth, the latter carding five red figures in a row, and though Spieth was ultimately undone by a bogey at the 16th, Theegala made five birdies in six holes to get in a share of the lead heading to the 18th tee. However, Theegala could not birdie the very birdie-able par-5 home hole, while Kirk stood over his 200-yard approach into the 17th. The wind finally woke up from its Sunday slumber, to the strength that the 7-iron that was in Kirk’s had was eventually switched out to a 5.
“The wind kind of, that was not what the wind had been doing for hours, and it kept sort of switching back and forth,” Kirk said. “We felt it off the right for a little while, we felt it off the left, and then it eventually settled back into out of the north like it had been.”
Kirk had the benefit of seeing the wind wreak havoc with playing partner Akshay Bhatia’s shot. He adjusted, choking down on the 5 and kniving it through the breeze. The shot landed just short and rolled, and rolled, and rolled some more, stopping only when the ball was in tap-in range. The converted putt, and ensuing safe drive on the 18th, left Kirk with a casual victory march down the 18th for his sixth career tour victory.
“Definitely one I'll never forget,” Kirk said. “When you're about to pull 7 and you end up hitting 5, that doesn't happen ever. That never happens. So to be able to commit to it like I did and make that good of a swing was an incredible feeling.”
Kevin C. Cox
Now Kirk is a good player, although he’s also one known primarily for something that has nothing to do with golf. In 2019, Kirk stepped away from the sport to deal with alcohol abuse and depression. He returned later that fall, although he never refound the heights he had earlier in his career until last season, when he broke an eight-year victory drought at the Honda Classic. It was there that Kirk’s return from the abyss took center stage and served as the platform for Kirk to win the tour’s Courage Award in November.
In that same breath, it could seem unfair to Kirk that his accomplishments now and in the future will be overshadowed by what happened in the past. Kirk, however, sees it differently.
“I hope it stays with me forever. It's a huge part of my life still now,” Kirk said. “Definitely the best thing that I've ever done in my life is to get sober. So, I understand what you're saying, that, you know, but I don't feel like it's taking away from anything that I'm accomplishing. It's 100 percent the reason why I'm able to do what I do. I've said that a lot, but there would be—my PGA Tour career would have been over awhile ago, had I not gotten sober. So, yeah, I'm fine with that staying with me for until the day I die.”
One of the things his alcoholism compromised was his joy for golf. The joy of when things are going well, sure, but he missed the joy of competing and the joy of toiling away without that promise it would pay off.
“I lost the joy of most things in life for awhile there,” Kirk said. “But, yeah, it's certainly back. I think I just love how hard this is. It's so hard to be great at this, and I love the process that it takes. I love the work that it takes to try to be the best version of myself. I definitely have fallen back in love with that process, and sometimes you get rewarded for it, like today, and sometimes you don't. That's just part of the deal. I think to be successful and to really enjoy your life as a PGA Tour player you've got to love the work.”
He later added: “I've had this group of people that are—you know, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt, it's like they don't care because I pay them, they truly, really care about me and truly care about me being successful, and so I feel that every day. It's amazing having that group of people behind me and it just makes me more motivated to want to go to work for it.”
Kirk said it was the same spirit seen on the 18th green, and on the walk to the clubhouse, and that was sprinkled on every word in his winner’s press conference. Maybe this week will launch a career-season as he nears 40, one that will end with a trip to East Lake and a chance to represent the United States at the Presidents Cup. Maybe this week is an aberration for what’s about to come. Whatever happens, his goal is to remain grateful. That’s why he was smiling, because Chris Kirk knows how good he’s got it.