Rehab sets Chris Kirk on the right course

Chris Kirk, a four-time winner on the PGA Tour finished T-2 at the Sony Open at Waialae Country Club last week, after taking "an indefinite leave" from the PGA Tour in summer 2019 to address issues with alcohol abuse and depression.

HARTFORD, Conn. – One of the most heartwarming stories in the history of golf, and sports in general, played out Sunday in the final round of the Sony Open at Waialae Country Club in Honolulu, Hawaii.

After stepping away from the PGA Tour for six months in May 2019 to address depression and alcoholism, Chris Kirk got up-and-down on the final hole for a birdie that enabled him to tie for second and retain his membership in his final start of a major medical extension.

Kirk closed with a fourth consecutive 5-under-par 65 for a 72-hole total of 20-under 260 that shared second with upstart Chilean Joaquin Niemann, one stroke behind Kevin Na, who birdied the final hole for 65 and a one-stroke victory, the fifth of his career. Kirk needed to finish in a two-way tie for third or better to stay in the major leagues, and the closing birdie did the trick.

“I never felt like it was a do-or-die type of situation (on the weekend),” said Kirk, who hit a difficult 25-yard shot from the rough to 18 inches to set up the decisive 4. “I think I was going to get to play some, but yeah, it totally changes everything being able to be back to picking my schedule like I’m used to over the last number of years.
“It’s huge. To go into a week and say I’ve got to finish top three to keep going and do it is silly. But I’m thankful God put me in a great situation, and you never know what’s going to happen.”

Kirk actually didn’t know where he needed to finish to retain his membership until he received an email from the PGA Tour.

Kevin Na (left), winner of the Sony Open and Chris Kirk, offer two compelling stories and both have been rewarded for their mental resilience after battling issues and potential career-ending demons from early in their careers.

“I wasn’t looking. I was just going and playing,” Kirk said. “I’m so thankful to have had the support of my family through these last few years, especially. It’s been incredible. You could have called them crazy for supporting me, but my wife Tahnee, my boys Sawyer, Foster and Wilder, I just love them so much and can’t wait to see them.”

The 35-year-old from Athens, Ga., said he was on his way to being an alcoholic from 2013-15 when he was at the peak of his career, noting alcoholism is a progressive disease.

“After the next few years, things kind of got worse,” Kirk said. “Being able to hit a reset button for me and get myself into a great place mentally and physically and just to be able to wake up every day and just be okay with who I am and what I’m doing, I feel like I’m starting every day doing the best I can and trying to do the best I can for my family. That’s allowing me to potentially get back to the form that I had before and actually using the skillset that I’ve been blessed with.”

While an ultimatum wasn’t quite how Kirk planned his return to full-time membership, his lack of expectations when he returned to competition freed him up to enjoy a game he loves.

“I wouldn’t exactly have pegged this is the fashion that I did it, but when I came back, I came back with absolutely no expectations,” Kirk said. “I knew I wanted to play golf again, and I knew I wanted to compete. As long as I stuck with that and tried to make sure that I was enjoying what I was doing, that was all that mattered to me.”

Kirk said his alcoholism stemmed from a history of issues with relatives. Ranked as high as 16th in the world, Kirk said he never drank before or during a round but found the pressures of providing for his growing family caused him to increase his drinking on the road.

Chris Kirk 007
Chris Kirk notched his fourth career PGA Tour win at the 2015 Colonial.

“I had to drink the right amount at night so that I felt normal the next day,” Kirk said. “Not too much so that I was really hungover, but I couldn’t not have anything or I was going to feel weird the next day.”

Kirk said he briefly quit drinking towards the end of 2018 but soon relapsed, causing issues with his wife. By April 2019, Kirk decided he needed to leave the sport in order to address his problems. The native of Knoxville, Tenn., began seeing a psychiatrist, who provided anti-anxiety medication, and a sports psychologist while also entering the 12-step program.

“Everybody has issues,” Kirk said. “Everybody has stuff that is bothering them that they need to work on. That just happened to be my thing.”

Kirk, who has four PGA Tour victories but none since 2015, won in his Korn Ferry Tour return last summer, but it wasn’t until the RSM Classic in the fall that Kirk cracked the Top 20 on the PGA Tour for the first time since his leave of absence. The tie for second Sunday was Kirk’s first Top-10 since the 2018 FedEx St. Jude Classic, and he earned 245 FedEx Cup points, nearly 100 more than the 148 he needed this week to avoid playing off conditional status for the rest of the season, or worse.

“I’m hoping that some of the shots I hit down the stretch will give me a bit more of that when I return to the PGA Tour because I know my game is plenty good enough,” Kirk said after the KFT win. “It’s just a matter of seeing it and feeling it and having some of that momentum carry over.”

It took a handful of starts, but with nothing to spare, Kirk had just enough of that momentum left in the tank.

Kirk has earned $18,130,139 in a PGA Tour career that includes wins in the 2011 Viking Classic, 2013 McGladrey Classic, 2014 Deutsche Bank Championship at TPC Boston in Norton, Mass., and 2015 Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial. In June, Kirk ended a five-year victory drought with the victory in the King & Bear Classic.

After taking his sabbatical to combat depression and alcoholism, the University of Georgia product assumed he’d jump back into the game and build on past successes. But that’s not how it played out as he missed five straight cuts leading into March, breaking 70 just once as his game was floundering.

But that’s when the coronavirus pandemic broke out, and Kirk was one of the few players who had taken a lengthy break in recent years. It was different, but not that uncomfortable for him, especially since he’d already reorganized his life to put family first.

When the season resumed, Kirk snapped his skid of missed cuts, making it to the weekend at the Charles Schwab Challenge in Fort Worth, Texas, but a closing 75 dropped him into a tie for 60th. The following week, he was the first alternate for the RBC Heritage on Hilton Head Island, S.C., but decided to play in the King & Bear Classic, marking the first time he’d played on the minor tour in a decade. The experience was exactly what Kirk needed as he battled Justin Lower before making a birdie on the final hole to claim his first title of any kind in five years.

“It just gave me a little bit more belief,” Kirk said. “I think that before that, I knew I was playing well but obviously wasn’t seeing much in the way of results. But I was happy with my golf swing and felt like I was working on the right things with my putting, but nothing can replace the confidence you get from shooting some low numbers and playing well when it counts.”
Kirk played well at just the right time Sunday to finish off one of golf’s all-time best stories.

“I’m very thankful, very grateful that I’m still able to do this,” Kirk said. “The last few years have been pretty wild with some up-and-downs for me. But to be in this situation to be healthy, to have a clear mind and a clear conscience is amazing, and golf is very much secondary to that. But still it’s my career, it’s what I love to do and to be able to have a week like I did this week is very gratifying.

“I feel like I’m starting every day doing the best that I can and try to do the best I can for my family is allowing me to potentially get back to the form that I had before and actually using the skill set that I’ve been blessed with. My whole life has changed. I think there were a number of years where I just wasn’t very happy with who I was and what I was doing and I was just kind of trying to hide from that. I chose alcohol to kind of get me away from where I was; you know, a lot of lying and hiding and the life that you live in that situation.

“But I think the biggest perspective for me now is I can wake up every day and I’m happy that I am who I am, and I have nothing to hide. I just feel like I’m doing the best I can and enjoying life. I’m just beyond thankful.”

Worked as sports writer for The Hartford Courant for 38 years before retiring in 2008. His major beats at the paper were golf, the Hartford Whalers, University of Connecticut men’s and women’s basketball, Yale football, United States and World Figure Skating Championships and ski columnist. He has covered every PGA Tour stop in Connecticut since 1971, along with 30 Masters, 25 U.S. Opens, four PGA Championships, 12 Deutsche Bank Championships, 15 Westchester (N.Y.) Classics and four Ryder Cups. He has won several Golf Writers Association of America writing awards, including a first place for a feature on John Daly, and was elected to the Connecticut Golf Hall of Fame in 2009. He also worked for the Connecticut Whale hockey team for two years when they were renamed by former Hartford Whalers managing general partner Howard Baldwin, who had become the marketing director of the Hartford Wolf Pack, the top affiliate of the New York Rangers.

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