It had been 2,836 days since Chris Kirk last won on the PGA Tour. Yet after securing his first victory in over seven years on Sunday, that was not the first milestone the American golfer had on his mind.
A nail-biting playoff victory over compatriot Eric Cole at The Honda Classic in Florida sealed the American’s fifth PGA Tour title, and his first since he committed to sobriety almost four years ago.
“I owe everything that I have in my entire life to my sobriety,” Kirk told reporters at PGA National Resort.
“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.
“For that to have happened and worked out for me, obviously there was some decisions that I made, but mostly the grace of God and a lot of other people that really helped me along the way.
“It’s something that’s constantly on my mind, so it’s pretty easy for me to see that winning the Honda Classic is kind of a bonus when literally every good thing I have in my life I owe to that.”
‘I got sober because of you’
On the eve of his 34th birthday in May 2019, Kirk announced he would be taking an “indefinite leave” from golf to deal with his alcohol abuse and depression.
“I thought I could control it, but after multiple relapses, I have come to realize I can’t fix this on my own,” Kirk added in a social media post.
By that point his world ranking, which had peaked at 16th after his fourth PGA Tour victory at the Colonial tournament in 2015, had plummeted to 188th. He had failed to make the cut in four consecutive events, missing a total of 11 over just 17 events in the 2018-19 PGA Tour season.
A tied-15th finish at the Arnold Palmer Invitational represented Kirk’s sole top-40 finish of the campaign.
When he returned to the Tour at the Mayakoba Golf Classic in November 2019, his rank had fallen even further – he was world No. 303 – but Kirk was a rejuvenated man.
A candid interview with the PGA Tour on the eve of his comeback shed light on the golfer’s previous multiple unsuccessful attempts to give up alcohol.
Kirk, who said there was a history of alcoholism in his family, added he had given up beer in late 2017, switching to wine and hard liquor such as vodka and bourbon. That switch had been a decision to tackle his increasing weight, but it only served to “accelerate” his alcohol issues.
For Kirk, his openness had simply been about personal catharsis. Subsequently, the response from others has blown him away.
“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 [to quit],” Kirk said.
“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 … 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 … 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.”
On Sunday, disaster looked to have struck for Kirk at the 18th when his second shot went sailing into the water hazard to the right of the hole.
The American recovered well, but his subsequent bogey saw him drop into a playoff against Cole, his 34-year-old compatriot – ranked 330th in the world ahead of the event – who was chasing his maiden PGA Tour title.
For both players, it marked their first experience of a PGA Tour playoff, and for Kirk, it meant a replay of the hole that had nearly crushed him moments earlier.
Again, Kirk looked to be sliding towards a heartbreaking collapse when his tee shot settled near a tree. However, an incredible response saw the 37-year-old spark a 267-yard effort to the greenside bunker before almost holing his subsequent eagle approach shot from the sand.
When Cole’s birdie putt agonizingly rolled around the lip’s hole, Kirk tapped home for birdie and victory.
As well as securing him $1,512,000 in prize money, Sunday’s triumph jumps Kirk to the world No. 32 spot and sixth in the FedEx Cup rankings. Just as sweetly, it clinches him a spot at The Masters in April and the opportunity to take his wife and three sons to Augusta.
“I’ve been watching that World Ranking closely, trying to stay in the top 50, but to take care of it this week, that’s going to be something that’s incredibly special,” Kirk said.
“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.”
On Thursday, Kirk will tee off in Orlando for the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Celebrating victory with a diet coke alongside friends on Sunday, the eve of the tournament will mark the first chance for Kirk to toast his victory with family.
“It’ll be a lot of celebrating, and I thank God that alcohol won’t be a part of it,” Kirk said.