BY: MIKE BLUM–May 26th, 2015
Chris Kirk has had an affinity for Colonial Country Club and the Ft. Worth, Tex., area since he was a junior at the University of Georgia.
Kirk came to Ft. Worth after a stellar junior season on the Georgia golf team, hoping to win the Ben Hogan Award, which is presented to the top collegiate golfer. He intended to turn pro and forego his senior season, but had a change of heart after Matt Every won the award.
After an outstanding senior season, Kirk was back in Ft. Worth as a Ben Hogan Award finalist, and this time returned home to Georgia with the trophy.
Kirk took home another trophy from Ft. Worth recently, capturing the Colonial Invitational for his fourth PGA Tour victory.
After holing a clutch par putt on the 72nd hole to prevent what would have been a 4-way playoff, Kirk reflected on the role the Hogan Award and Colonial have played in a career that has him in the top 20 in the World Ranking after placing second in 2014 in the final FedExCup Playoffs points list.
“I had been planning on turning pro after my junior year,” Kirk recalled. “I had a great year that year, thinking OK, what else am I going to accomplish my senior year? So after I came here and did the whole deal and had the ceremony and I didn’t win, it sort of motivated me.
“So I went back to Georgia for my senior year and had a great year and came back and won the Ben Hogan Award. Those experiences, those two years coming here and getting to play the golf course and just seeing the incredible history of this place really, really made me love it.
“And then once I got on tour, I found that it was a course that really, really suited my game, and I’ve always enjoyed the town of Ft. Worth. So all those things combined has made it my favorite place to come year in and year out. So to win it for all those reasons is really just beyond belief.”
Kirk became the first Hogan Award winner to win on Hogan’s home course, shooting 65-66 the final two rounds after trailing Kevin Na by seven after 36 holes. Kirk was still three back going to the final round, but made a quick move up the leader board when he hit his second shot on the par-5 opening hole to 14 feet from almost 250 yards and holed the putt for eagle.
After a bogey at the seventh hole resulting from one of several missed fairways in the final round, Kirk birdied three of his last 10 holes, two of them from inside five feet and the other on an 18-footer. He also saved par three times on the final five holes, capped by the clutch 7-footer for the win at the 18th.
“I’m kind of surprised to be sitting here with y’all at the moment,” Kirk said in his post-victory press conference. “Every other time that I’ve either won or been in this position, I’ve felt really great about pretty much all aspects of my game.
“To be able to do it when I didn’t really feel like I quite had it is a huge step for me. “
Kirk had a similar feeling two weeks earlier in the Players Championship. He was not entirely satisfied with the quality of his play for 54 holes, but led going to the final round, playing what he described as “really efficient golf.
“I didn’t really feel great with my swing there. I was getting the ball up and down, making putts and hitting good iron shots when I had to. So to go in there with the lead going to the final round and not win, I really wasn’t that hard on myself.”
Kirk admitted that he did not expect to win Colonial coming into the week, and said he was “probably more nervous today than any of my previous three wins coming down the stretch,” owing to his uncertainty with his ball striking.
“I’m a little bit surprised but very proud of myself that I was able to do it.”
Kirk was one of a large number of players who had a chance to win the tournament, including recent Masters champion and local favorite Jordan Spieth, Brandt Snedeker and Jason Bohn, like Kirk an Atlanta area resident.
Bohn and Spieth had both posted 11-under totals with Kirk standing at 12-under late in his final round. Snedeker had a birdie putt on the final hole that would have gotten him to 12-under, and after he missed, Kirk rolled in the tournament-clincher to avoid a playoff.
Kirk claimed the winner’s check of $1.17 million, which will come in handy with he and wife Tahnee about to close on a house in Athens. Kirk grew up in Woodstock in Cherokee County and after graduating from Georgia in 2007, settled on St. Simons Island.
Once he and his wife started a family, the Kirks moved back to the Atlanta area to be closer to relatives. But with their two young sons now old enough to travel, they decided to return to the college town where they both went to school.
Although he was a national-caliber junior, Kirk did not emerge as an elite player in Athens until his sophomore season, when he won twice and helped lead the Bulldogs to an NCAA championship along with fellow PGA Tour winner Brendon Todd and Kevin Kisner, who has made several runs at his first PGA Tour victory the past few months.
Kirk won two college tournaments as a sophomore, two more as a junior and three as a senior, placing second individually in the NCAA Championship as a junior and tying for ninth as a senior, when the Bulldogs finished second as a team. He was second team All-American as a sophomore and first team as a junior and senior.
After completing his college career, Kirk played in the 2007 Walker Cup on the U.S. team that included Dustin Johnson, Rickie Fowler, Webb Simpson and Billy Horschel, and defeated the GBI team led by Rory McIlroy.
Kirk spent three years on what is now the Web.com Tour, playing respectably in his rookie season in 2008 highlighted by a playoff loss in Knoxville. After struggling through a poor sophomore season as a pro, Kirk reclaimed his playing privileges for 2010 season and enjoyed an outstanding season, winning twice, finishing second twice and ending the year second on the money list after having to miss the Tour Championship with a hand injury.
In Kirk’s final appearance before his injury, he tied for 15th in the inaugural PGA Tour McGladrey Classic at Sea Island GC, playing on a sponsor’s exemption. In his second start as a PGA Tour member two months later, Kirk tied for seventh in the Bob Hope Classic, and came close to a victory the week before the Masters, tying for second in Houston when shot 67 in the final round but lost to Phil Mickelson’s 65.
Kirk captured his first PGA Tour title later that season, winning in Mississippi in a tournament played opposite the British Open.
Although he played steady golf in the 2012 and ’13 seasons, placing 49th and 34th in the FedExCup standings, Kirk was winless for more than two years before capturing the McGladrey Classic at the outset of the 2013-14 season. That win began an outstanding season that included a runner-up finish in Hawaii, top 20 showings in his first appearances in the Masters and British Open, and a victory in the Playoffs event in Boston.
That win gave Kirk a chance to win the FedExCup last year and he tied for fourth in the Tour Championship at East Lake, but finished second in the final standings behind Tour Championship winner Horschel.
Kirk began his 2014-15 season with a tie for fourth in the McGladrey Classic, and shot 62 and 64 in the final rounds of the first two tournaments of 2015 in Hawaii, but went five months between top-10s before a tie for eighth in San Antonio two weeks before the Masters.
With his win in the Colonial, Kirk moved up to 14th in the FedExCup standings and to 17th in the World Rankings, and is in position to make a second straight appearance in the Tour Championship. After being considered but passed over for a Ryder Cup selection last year, he was fourth in the Presidents Cup standings and is likely to make that team, which plays later this year in South Korea.