By Tim Liotta
Kirk makes most of restored love of competing at golf's highest level
In 2014, a 29-year-old rising star named Chris Kirk admitted shaking as he played the final round of the PGA Tour Championship. He went into the Tour's crowning event projected Number One, and on Sunday had been in contention on the back nine with his profession's most lucrative prize at stake.
After the round, Kirk was asked about the shaking, responding, "That is the most obvious question I've ever heard. Just the whole stage and how much money is at stake, and more importantly to me, the money is good and great, but just being able to perform on this kind of stage.
"That's what's important to me, to hit shots and hit good putts and make them and just to be under that kind of pressure and to be able to hit the good shots, that's what makes you nervous, but that's also why I play this game."
That purpose would carry Kirk, who wound up finishing T4 that week, to career bests in 2014 with two PGA Tour wins, including one in a playoff event, not to mention earning more than $4.8 million. His Official World Golf Ranking reached No. 18 that November.
That ranking would peak at 16 the next summer, and he'd represent the U.S. at the 2015 President’s Cup in Korea in 2015, sinking a 15-foot putt to defeat Anirban Lahiri in a critical Sunday Singles match to help the U.S. clinch the Cup by a narrow 15.5-14.5 margin.
Over the next three years, however Kirk's play began to slip. He won again in 2015, but his overall earnings would decline from $2.8M in 2015 to $1.7M in 2016 to $1.2M in 2017, while his OWGR fell from 50 to 74 to 187.
By 2019, Kirk's golf game had eroded to the point he would miss six of eight cuts, including four in a row before he reached a point where he'd had enough. He'd fallen to 188th in the world. Away from the golf course, his life was even worse, as the countless empty hotel rooms did not provide him a positive environment to decompress.
“I was definitely to the point where I knew that I couldn't keep going the way that I was going,” Kirk said in a Palm Beach Post report in 2021. “My golf game didn't matter a whole lot to me one way or the other at that point.”
So, in May of 2019, on the eve of his 34th birthday, Kirk announced he would be taking an “indefinite leave” from golf to deal with alcohol abuse and depression. He would not return to competition for almost seven months.
"Oh, there's a lot of things that I can't believe I did and most of them I don't really want to talk about to be honest with you," Kirk said in January, 2021, prior to competing in that week's PGA Tour event. "But I would say the big, the big thing is just how delusional my mind became for awhile there and how I let my kind of anxiety run rampant, which was fueled by the life-style that I was living and just completely irrational thoughts that I got to that felt very, very real and reasonable to me."
Kirk's return to his profession was by no means smooth nor easy, as he missed five cuts in a row from November, 2019 through March, 2020. In June, 2020, he played in and won a Korn Ferry Tour event. With his FedEx ranking hovering near 190 that summer he was so close to losing his PGA Tour card he participated in the KFT playoffs in August, 2020, just in case he needed someplace to play in 2020.
That fall Kirk played in PGA Tour events under a Major Medical exemption, which required him to earn enough FedEx Cup points in a limited number of events to in order regain his PGA Tour card, finishing up four events with a T18 at the RSM Classic. By January of 2021, his exemption was set to expire, Kirk gave it one last try, needing a top-three finish at the Sony Open on the opening week of 2021 to keep his card.
And he came through, shooting four consecutive rounds of 65 on his way to a solo second finish.
"I mean I was about to sign up for some Monday qualifiers and definitely had already looked at the Korn Ferry schedule when I would be playing out there," Kirk said, "and going from that to now being where I'll most likely get into Bay Hill and going to be able to play THE PLAYERS and back to the schedule that I've enjoyed the last 10 years is pretty nice, I certainly won't be taking it for granted, that's for sure."
Kirk was asked about how he was feeling playing final holes knowing what was at stake.
"Yes, it was certainly different and things are, I would say the last couple years have been obviously wildly different for me," he said. "So I felt like I was starting to make some progress in the fall, I finished 18th at RSM which was my best finish on tour since I came back from my leave, if you will. And that was the first time where like on Sunday I was a little bit nervous, but I felt okay, I felt like, all right, I can still do this.
"Then on this past Sunday, Saturday and Sunday at Sony, it was definitely an enhanced feeling of that. Feeling like, okay, I'm really nervous but that's not going to hold me back from playing great, I can still hit great shots, I can still make putts ... it felt incredible. It felt a lot like I felt in 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, those years where I was playing really great. I would get in these situations coming down the stretch on Sunday where I had a chance to win and I felt so nervous, but I knew that everybody else did too and I felt like I'm really good at handling this situation when I'm really nervous and when I feel under the gun, like I know that I can still do it."
Question: Do you enjoy feeling nervous, maybe opposed to how you would have felt in that position, three, four years ago?
"Yes, that has definitely changed," Kirk said. "I definitely got, for awhile there, I would say probably more so in like maybe late 2017, 2018, beginning of 2019, where whenever I got in a situation where I was starting to feel nervous I hated it. And I don't know how that related to the personal issues that I was going through, I think they probably went hand in hand more than I realized at the time, but I just, I just hated it.
"So I got to the point where I'm out here playing every week and I want to do well, but then when I do well I just feel like I'm going to throw up. It just feels awful.
"So that's something that's been awesome to have that come back, where obviously being really nervous it's never going to be like a comfortable feeling, but you can still like it. And I'm back to where now when I start to feel a little bit nervous, no, it's not comfortable, but I love it, I love that that's where I'm at, because that's why I really want to play, I really want to compete and I really want to see how good I can be again. So it's a sign, obviously, that I'm doing some things the right way."
With that sense of purpose restored Kirk met with the media the week following regaining his PGA Tour card at the American Express in California
"This year I was planning on playing kind of a mixed schedule of some PGA Tour events, some Korn Ferry events, playing some Monday qualifiers for the PGA Tour also," he said. "And I got to think that one of the things that made what I did last week possible is that I was perfectly okay with that. I was completely content with just playing whenever I got to play. I was really happy with where my game was at and I felt like I was really finally starting to play good and really put it all together and feeling good about all aspects of my game.
"So I felt like in my mind ... fulfilling my medical like I did last week was the least likely way for me to get back to the PGA TOUR. I was, at 40 something on the Korn Ferry TOUR Money List, going into last week I think I was about 130th on the PGA TOUR FedExCup list, and then I also had the possibility of the Korn Ferry Tour Finals.
"So the current year FedExCup, current year Korn Ferry list or the Korn Ferry Finals, I had those, those three different avenues were how I saw myself getting back to good status on the PGA TOUR next fall. ... So I was very content though to be chasing those other three avenues and just trying to go play well. And I was very confident that I was going to get back on to the PGA TOUR by this fall one way or the other. But obviously couldn't be happier with the way that it turned out."
Content, confident, with his sense of purpose renewed, Kirk began clawing his way back to his previous form. Two top-20s in his next three events followed by three top-10s in the six events after that. On the OWGR, where he was No. 263 coming into 2021, his ranking improved into the mid-60s for most of the year. In 2022, he added another four top-10s and saw his OWGR ranking peak at 55.
Kirk's next big step forward came last March at the 2023 Honda Classic, where he defeated tour rookie Eric Cole in a playoff for his first PGA Tour victory in eight years.
"I owe everything that I have in my entire life to my sobriety," Kirk said afterward. "I wouldn't be doing this for a living anymore. I probably wouldn't have the family that I have currently anymore.
"I came really close to losing everything that I cared about."
Next Question: "There's so many parts and perks to winning, what's the best one?"
"I'm not going to lie to you. I came into this week at 47th in the world golf ranking, and that's usually not something I care a whole lot about, but I have not played the Masters since 2016, I think, and growing up in Georgia, that kind of means everything to me," Kirk said. "So I've been watching that World Ranking closely, trying to stay in the top 50.
"Last time I played, my two older sons, Sawyer and Foster were maybe two, just turned two, and like four months old. Now to be able to go back, they'll be 11 and 9, and then wilder, my third son, will be five. That par-3 contest can't come soon enough. I'm really looking forward to that. The whole week, but just to be able to make those memories with my wife and my kids will be awesome."
After the Masters' annual Wednesday par-3 spectacle, Kirk would post a T23 in the 2023 Masters, and would go on to finish 2023 with four top-10s, 8 top-25s, his first $4 million season since 2014, and a place at No. 52 in the OWGR. And, in December, Chris was awarded the PGA Tour's Courage Award, which is presented "to a person who, through courage and perseverence, has overcome extraordinary adversity, such as personal tragedy or debilitating injury or illness, to make a significant contribution to the game of golf."
After learning Chris would be honored, Kirk's wife, Tahnee Kirk, would write a letter posted on PGATour.com that included the following passage: "I know this award is going to mean so much to him, but I know he is still going to think, 'Why me?' He's not going to feel deserving because I think he feels getting sober more as what he had to do. He did, to an extent, have to do this. But I don't think he realizes what a big deal it is to be so open and honest, and how much this has helped so many people."
Asked about his impact on people after his victory at the Honda Classic, Kirk responded, "I've gotten to see it firsthand thankfully. It's been amazing getting to connect with people and meet people that have - I couldn't really put a number on it, but it's been a lot of people that have reached out to me directly and said, I read your story or I heard your story and that made me decide that it was time.
"When I first came back to playing and was very open and honest about it, that was not in my mind at all. It was more - it was for me because I felt I had lived this life for a number of years where I was just lying to myself, lying to my family - hiding a lot of things. So the honesty of the process that I went through to get better just felt so good that I had nothing to hide, and so it was just the natural thing for me to do.
"But now on the back end a little bit, it's been amazing. Like I said, it's not something that I really saw happening, but to be able to connect with people and hear people that - for somebody to say, I got sober because of you, and my life has changed because of you, you can't really describe how unreal that is with words."
So, when the calendar turned to 2024, and the PGA Tour began a new season, and Kirk outplayed a stellar field over a hilly Kapalua with 30 birdies en route to a 29-under-par score, one shot better than Sahith Theegala, the guy who once loved the stage, knew his purpose on it, then lost that love, was asked about joy of competing at the game's highest level.
"I had it for a long time and then lost it. 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. Like, 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 ... 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."
The highlight of winning the tour's first Signature event for Kirk came in a moment that only a golfer can appreciate, when, on the penultimate hole, Kirk was faced with processing all that goes into making a world-class golf shot.
"That shot on 17 was crazy, one of the best shots of my career, for sure," Kirk said. "Definitely one I'll never forget. Because of the situation, you know, being on the 17th, or 71st hole, but then also we played the tee shot into the wind and we got down there to the ball and it had switched and was blowing straight down, so I had 192 adjusted and I was ready - if I had been first to hit, before Akshay (Bhatia), I would have pulled out 7 and hit a nice full 7 downwind. But the wind kind of - that was not what the wind had been doing for hours, and it kept sort of switching back and forth. 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.
"So, thankfully, Akshay took a minute, understandably so, trying to figure out this wind that was going all over the place, and so by the time it was my turn to hit, I felt pretty confident the wind had settled back into what it was and just kind of choked up on a 5-iron and hit a great shot.
"So, I'm very proud, very, very proud of that shot, that I was able to make the right call - talk about a tough shot to commit to. 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."
After Kirk would make his birdie and a few minutes later tap out on the 72nd hole to secure the victory, face the prefunctory television interview, participate in the trophy ceremony before facing the media in the winner's press conference where he was asked the following:
Question: "I can't think of a better way to put this, but when you were contending at Rocket Mortgage in 2020, and won on Korn Ferry, certainly won Honda last year, it's always the guy who had to step away to overcome alcohol and depression, etc. How much longer will that be with you? When you do something great that the first reference is, the guy who did this, as opposed to who you are as a player, and are you okay with that?"
"I hope it stays with me forever," Kirk said. "It's a huge part of my life still now. 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 a hundred 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."