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Chris Kirk hits ‘reset button’ on golf and life

Chris Kirk ties for 2nd in 2021 Sony Open in Hawaii
Chris Kirk reacts to his co-runner-up finish at the Sony Open in Hawaii, which secures the 35-year-old American’s playing status on the PGA Tour for the rest of the season after a long climb back from personal issues.

After treatment for depression and alcohol dependency, Kirk likes what he sees in himself on the PGA Tour and in the mirror

For someone who came up one stroke short of claiming his first victory in 5½ years on the PGA Tour, Chris Kirk certainly sounded like a winner.

Kirk made a clutch up-and-down birdie after having short-sided himself on the par-5 18th hole of the Sony Open in Hawaii on Sunday. Though he finished one stroke behind winner Kevin Na, Kirk left Waialae Country Club in Honolulu with something much more valuable: a heightened sense of self-worth. And then there’s the career boost that he earned, too.

Kirk, who needed a tie for third or better in his final start on a major medical extension to maintain his playing privileges for the rest of the 2020-21 season, added some certainty to his career after having exorcised the demons from his personal life. He spoke openly with the media about his struggles to overcome depression and alcoholism.

“The last few years have been pretty wild, with some ups and downs for me,” Kirk said after signing for a 5-under 65 – his fourth in a row at Waialae – and a 20-under total, which was worth $587,400 from the $6.6 million purse. “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'm just beyond words thankful.”

A little more than a decade ago, Kirk was starting to emerge as one of the game’s top young players. He starred for Georgia’s 2005 NCAA champions, won the 2007 Ben Hogan Award and played for the victorious 2007 U.S. Walker Cup team. Kirk won three times on the developmental Nationwide Tour in 2010, earning a promotion to the PGA Tour, where he didn’t take long to win on golf’s biggest stage, either. He claimed the 2011 Viking Classic as a rookie, then won once in three consecutive years, 2013-15, before playing on the Americans’ victorious 2015 Presidents Cup team.

Yet, despite so much success on the course, he was sliding into the abyss off of it.

“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.”

In May 2019, he announced that he needed an “indefinite leave” from golf to deal with his personal issues.

“There were a number of years there where I just wasn't very happy with who I was and what I was doing,” Kirk said, “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.”

After 30 weeks of a physical and mental rehabilitation, Kirk returned to the PGA Tour in the fall of 2019 and, in his first start, tied for 33rd at the Mayakoba Golf Classic. But his game was nowhere near the level of a few years earlier, when he had climbed to No. 16 in the world, and he missed cuts in his next five starts, plunging out of the top 500 in the world ranking.

After a three-month shutdown early last year during the COVID-19 pandemic, Kirk won the Korn Ferry Tour’s The King and Bear Classic, his first victory on a major professional tour in five years. Following spotty play for the rest of the year, Kirk made four consecutive PGA Tour cuts in the fall to end 2020 with some momentum. And then came his career reboot on Sunday in Honolulu.

“I’m just really happy with the way my golf game feels and excited to keep going,” he said. “Being able to kind of 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 OK with who I am and what I'm doing. 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,” he said, thanking his wife, Tahnee, and sons Sawyer, Foster and Wilder for their support. “That 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.”

Now, beginning with this week’s American Express in La Quinta, Calif., Kirk, 35, enters the West Coast Swing with the professional clarity that complements his new personal direction.

“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. 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. You know, I just feel like I'm doing the best I can and enjoying life. It's as simple as that.”

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