Chris Kirk holding the 2013 McGladrey Classic Trophy, after his win on Sunday, Nov. 10.
By Mike Blum
Victories by Chris Kirk in the recent McGladrey Classic and Harris English in Mexico put the finishing touches on what was a very successful year for a handful of twenty-something Georgians on the PGA Tour, who first made their names as junior golfers in the state.
Kirk was the third member of that small but talented group to win in 2013. Next April, he will join Roberto Castro, who was not among the trio of winners, and English, who won twice this year, in making their debuts in the Masters.
Russell Henley was also a 2013 winner, with his victory early in the year in Hawaii earning him a spot in this year’s Masters. Henley has yet to qualify for the 2014 Masters, and will likely need an early-season victory to earn a return visit to Augusta.
Henley, a Macon native, made a rather impressive PGA Tour debut with his victory in the Hawaiian Open, the first full field event of the year. English, who was born and raised in south Georgia and was a teammate of Henley’s for four years on the UGA golf team, scored his first PGA Tour victory in Memphis midway through the season.
Castro, who grew up in Atlanta suburb of Alpharetta, did not win in 2013. But his runner-up finish in the AT&T National at Congressional was one of several strong showings that enabled him to qualify for the Tour Championship, which also provided him the ticket to the 2014 Masters.
Kirk, the “veteran” of the group with three seasons on the PGA Tour, won as a rookie in 2011. But that came in one of the second tier “opposite” events, in his case the annual stop in Mississippi that was played the same week as the British Open. Kirk, a contemporary of Castro who also grew up in the Atlanta suburbs (Woodstock), closed out 2013 with a title after a near miss early in the year at Pebble Beach, where he placed 2nd behind Brandt Snedeker.
Savannah’s Brian Harman, whose junior and collegiate career overlapped with all four of the above, came close to his first PGA Tour victory in the final event of the 2013 regular season in Greensboro, finishing just two strokes out of a playoff won by recent Augusta State golfer Patrick Reed.
Harman was a teammate of Kirk for two years in Athens, and also played along side Henley and English for two seasons after Kirk graduated. Castro competed for years against both Kirk and Harman before turning pro, first as a junior and later during four years at Georgia Tech.
At 28, Kirk and Castro are the “senior” members of the Georgia’s quintet of talented twenty-somethings with similar pre-professional resumes. Both won American Junior Golf Association events in their home state, and enjoyed successful match play runs in the 2002 U.S. Junior Championship at Atlanta Athletic Club, as did Harman.
Both players earned first team All-America honors during their college careers, with Kirk claiming that honor twice. Kirk won medalist honors in seven different events during his four seasons in Athens, four of them in Georgia in tournaments hosted by Augusta State, Georgia Tech, Georgia Southern and UGA.
The highlight of Kirk’s college career was being part of the Bulldogs’ 2005 NCAA Championship team, with his teammates including current PGA Tour members Brendon Todd and Kevin Kisner.
Kirk’s breakthrough year came in 2010, his third season on the Nationwide (now the Web.com) Tour. He won two tournaments that year, was 2nd twice (once in a playoff) and finished 2nd on the money list after being unable to play in the Tour Championship because of an injury. Prior to the injury, Kirk was offered a sponsor’s invitation into the inaugural McGladrey Classic and tied for 15th.
It didn’t take long for Kirk to make his mark as a PGA Tour rookie. In his second start of 2011 he contended through three rounds in the Bob Hope Classic and ended up tied for 7th. He nearly played his way to Augusta the week before the Masters, tying for 2nd in Houston behind Phil Mickelson.
Kirk followed with a respectable sophomore showing in 2012 and opened 2013 with a pair of top-5 finishes on the West Coast, including a strong runner-up finish at Pebble Beach. He played consistently the rest of the year, but did not re-emerge as a serious contender until his victory at Sea Island GC.
Castro took a little longer to make it to both the Web.com and PGA Tours, enjoying his early success as a pro on the eGolf Tour. He won five times between 2007 and ’10 before playing his way onto the Nationwide Tour midway through the 2010 season, placing 2nd in Wichita one week after making it into the tournament in Omaha as a Monday qualifier.
During his time on the mini-tours, Castro made several starts in the Georgia Open, winning at Barnsley Gardens in 2009 after placing 6th and 2nd the previous two years.
A consistently successful 2011 season on the Nationwide Tour earned Castro a spot on the PGA Tour the next year, and he played well enough as a rookie to retain his PGA Tour card without an excess of stress.
Castro’s 2013 season took a turn after he tied the course record at TPC Sawgrass with an opening round 63 and finished in the top 20. He made repeated appearances on leader boards the rest of the season, highlighted by his strong challenge at Congressional. Bill Haas shot 66 the final day to finish three ahead of Castro, who closed with a 69.
After coming close to his first PGA Tour win, Castro tied for 6th in Canada and was 12th in the PGA Championship in just his second start in a major. He closed out the season with finishes of 9th, 15th and 9th in the last three Playoffs events, the second of his top 10s coming at East Lake in the Tour Championship.
Henley and English followed similar paths to the PGA Tour, with both winning as amateurs on the Nationwide Tour. Henley’s win came during his senior season in Athens in the Stadion Classic at UGA, with English winning in Ohio a few months later.
English won the Georgia Amateur just before beginning his freshman season on the Georgia golf team, with Henley edging out his teammate to win the event the next two years. Henley also won the GSGA Junior Championship two years before the first of his two GSGA Championship victories. He went on match Kirk’s career UGA victory total with seven, including two medalist honors at NCAA Regionals and three straight victories in the Brickyard Invitational in his home town.
Henley made his first national splash in 2010, tying for 16th in the U.S. Amateur at Pebble Beach, shortly after earning first team All-America status and Player of the Year honors as a junior. Late in his senior season, Henley became just the second amateur to win on the Nationwide Tour on the University of Georgia course.
He joined the tour full time in 2012 and closed out his rookie season as a pro with a spectacular finish, winning two of the last four tournaments on the schedule in playoffs and recording seven top 10s in his last three 13 starts.
In his first start as a PGA Tour member, Henley birdied the last five holes in the final round of the Hawaiian Open for a 63 and a 3-stroke victory. He finished the tournament at 24-under 256, one of the lowest totals in PGA Tour history. But other than a pair of ties for 6th at Hilton Head and the Memorial, Henley was relatively quiet the rest of the season and dropped out of the top 30 in the FedExCup standings.
English beat his teammate to the PGA Tour, making it through Q-school in his first attempt in 2011, just six months after completing his college career. English won four times as a Bulldog, including the Brickyard and Isleworth tournaments as a freshman, and was second or third team All-American all four seasons in Athens.
After strong showings in the Stadion Classic at UGA during his junior and senior seasons in Athens, English, who lives on St. Simons Island, won in his third start as an amateur in a professional event, taking one of the top Web.com Tour events in Columbus, Oh.
English turned pro after competing in the 2011 Walker Cup along with Henley, and almost won in his second start as a professional, losing in a playoff in a Web.com event in Texas. Two weeks later he tied for 3rd in Miami and turned in a strong effort in his first visit to Q-school to make it to the PGA Tour for the 2012 season. English enjoyed a very respectable rookie season with 10 top-25 finishes, and followed it up with a strong sophomore showing highlighted by his win in Memphis, falling just short of qualifying for the Tour Championship.
The most accomplished member of the group as a junior was Harman. He won the GSGA Junior Championship in 2002 and ’03, and the U.S. Junior later in ’03. Like English, he captured the Georgia Amateur just before his freshman season in Athens, taking the title in his home town at Savannah GC, and represented the U.S. in the Walker Cup that summer.
Harman’s amateur resume included a victory in the Dogwood at Druid Hills GC and a second Walker Cup appearance in 2009, but his professional career has been slower to develop than former teammates Kirk, Henley and English. Harman made the cut in Hartford’s PGA Tour stop as a 17-year-old in 2004, but it took several tries for him to make it to the Tour thanks to a strong showing in the 2011 qualifying finals.
In his first two seasons, Harman has managed three top 10 finishes, with a tie for 5th in the 2012 Barclays his best effort until he made a strong run at victory late in the 2013 season in Greensboro. Harman, who also lives on St. Simons Island, picked up two top 10s in his first three starts of the 2013-14 schedule, putting himself in position for his best season as a pro.