HONOLULU (AP) — The scene was familiar on the PGA Tour, except that it typically involves the winner. The Sony Open wasn’t even over and Chris Kirk had reason to celebrate.
He was some 80 feet away to the right of the 18th green, the worst angle for a pin tucked to the right, but just enough room for a reasonable chance. Kirk’s pitch was perfect, leading to a birdie that gave him a share of the lead after his fourth consecutive round of 65.
Brendon Todd, who played with Kirk at Georgia, greeted him with a hug. Kevin Mitchell, another former Georgia player, dropped by on the practice range for more congratulations.
This was as much about returning than winning.
Kirk came up one shot short on Sunday as Kevin Na rallied on the back nine with three straight birdies to take the lead, and a simple up-and-down behind the 18th green for a final birdie that gave him a one-shot victory.
That was a winning comeback. Kirk had one of his own.
He walked away from the game in May 2019 for alcoholism and depression. He had reached a point through anxiety and pressure where he was trying to drink the right amount of booze to feel normal. He realized too much would make him terrible, and not having anything to drink would make him feel weird.
Along with his four wins, the highlight of his career was at the Presidents Cup in 2015 when he holed a 15-foot putt on the final hole in South Korea, the most pivotal of shots that led to a tight U.S. victory.
“I would say in 2013, 2014, 2015, when I was kind of at the peak of my career, that was kind of the beginning,” Kirk said. “Alcoholism is a very progressive disease, so at that time I probably was not an alcoholic; I was just on my way to being one. After the next few years, things kind of got worse.”
Once he was on the road to recovery, helped along by the support of his wife and three young sons, it was a matter of his career. The tour gave him a major medical extension for the time he missed, giving him a set number of tournaments to do well enough to regain his full status.
The Sony Open was the last event. He needed a two-way tie for third.
Without that birdie on the final hole, Kirk would have finished in a four-way tie for third.
Kirk still could have played in tournaments that had room for him as a four-time PGA Tour winner, or received sponsor exemptions. Still, this was a burden lifted.
“It totally changes everything being able to be back to picking my schedule like I’m used to over the last number of years,” he said. “It’s huge. To go into a week and say I’ve got to finish top three to keep going and do it is, you know, silly. I’m thankful God put me in a great situation, and you never know what’s going to happen.”
It’s been a long road back for Kirk. He doesn’t have the star appeal, even though he played on the Walker Cup in 2007 that featured players like Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy, Rickie Fowler, Webb Simpson and Danny Willett.
In an interview with The Athletic last summer, Kirk said, “I’m perfectly OK with saying this — that, I guess, before this, there’s never really been anything all that interesting about me. I’ve always been pretty good at golf. Other than that, I just go about my business.”
That’s the plan going forward, sober now for more than 20 months, playing golf for passion without the kind of pressure that once nearly cost him more than a PGA Tour card.
“I think that there were a number of years there 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,” he said. “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 is I can wake up every day and I’m happy that I am who I am, and I have nothing to hide,” he said. “I just feel like I’m doing the best I can and enjoying life. It’s as simple as that.”
Four rounds at 65 usually is enough to win. It wasn’t this week on a course softened by overnight rain and missing the strong tropical wind that keeps Waialae from being so vulnerable.
Na hit the winning shot and was proud in his own right. He went eight years on tour before his first win, seven seasons before the next one and now has won in each of his last four seasons. Winning is addictive.
Kirk was thrilled to be back. He loves the way he’s playing and how he’s living. There is a quiet confidence about him that allowed him to approach the Sony Open with peace, not looking at it as third-place or bust.
“It’s incredible,” he said. “I would have never guessed that it would work out this way this week.”