When Chris Kirk won the Deutsche Bank Championship Labor Day weekend to take over the top spot in the FedExCup Playoffs standings, a lot of casual golf fans were wondering, “Who is this guy?”
Kirk is beginning his fifth year on the PGA Tour, and after three successful but unexceptional seasons, emerged in 2013-14 as one of the game’s best, if not exactly best-known players.
For Kirk, an Atlanta area native and resident and a former Georgia Bulldog, his rise from semi-obscurity to possible stardom began at last year’s McGladrey Classic at Sea Island Golf Club.
Kirk’s lone victory in his first three years on the PGA Tour came in Mississippi during his rookie season in 2011 in an event played the same week as the British Open. He finished in the top 50 in the final FedExCup standings in each of his first three seasons, but with just one second-tier victory and no showings of note in any of the game’s premier events, Kirk was a mostly anonymous player with more promise than accomplishments.
A victory in the 2013 McGladrey Classic boosted Kirk’s profile a bit, but it wasn’t until his win in the Deutsche Bank Championship that Kirk began to attract some serious attention from the sport’s followers.
After his victory in Boston, much was made about Kirk’s possible selection to the Ryder Cup team, and the questions continued after he was not one of Tom Watson’s three captain’s choices. Even though Kirk finished just behind Keegan Bradley, just ahead of Webb Simpson and well in front of Hunter Mahan (who won the Barclays the week before) in the Ryder Cup standings, he was apparently not given serious consideration by Watson, but shrugged off his rejection after Watson’s picks were announced.
“It’s not really that big of a deal,” Kirk said of his Ryder Cup snub during the Tour Championship at East Lake. “Those guys that he picked are great players and they’re going to do great. I’m a little tired and I’m looking forward to my rest.”
The day before Watson made his selections, Kirk downplayed how much the possibility of his making the team was weighing on him.
“I probably don’t put as much importance on it as a lot of guys do. Obviously, I see it as a huge honor to play on that team and I would absolutely love to do it. But I’m not going to really base how happy I am with how I’m playing, or how my year has gone, or whether I make the team or not.”
Kirk has been a very good player since he was one of the country’s top juniors and went on to enjoy one of the most successful careers in the history of the UGA golf team. But his self-described “efficient style of golf” has kept him under the radar relative to some of golf’s more flamboyant performers.
That was evident during the first round of the Tour Championship. Kirk and Billy Horschel, Nos. 1 and 2 in the FedExCup standings going into the Tour Championship, were playing in the final group of the first round, with Bubba Watson and Rory McIlroy in the group ahead.
“Even though we were in the final group and playing good rounds … we were leading the tournament, and there was still five times more people following the group in front of us, and deservedly so,” Kirk said.” Those guys have six majors between them, and they’re both really exciting players to watch.
“I don’t see myself ever getting to that level of popularity. I hope that I have a great following of people that enjoy watching me play, but I’m just not going to really wow you. I hope to hit a lot of good shots, but it’s more an efficient style of golf rather than an overpowering style like Rory and Bubba play.”
Kirk is about average in length, averaging just over 290 yards per drive, and is slightly above the middle of the pack in hitting fairways. His weakest stat this past season was greens in regulation, but he more than compensated with his scrambling and putting, ranking near the top in both categories. Despite his absence of extreme length, Kirk ranked 6th on the PGA Tour in par 5 scoring average, a testament to his efficiency at getting the ball in the hole.
“I definitely couldn’t really ask for more,” he said of his 2013-14 season after tying for 4th in the Tour Championship. “I feel like I got a lot out of my game this year and I definitely went to some new levels with my game. Very, very happy with the way I’ve played and the way it’s finishing up.
“But at the same time, if I didn’t think I had a lot of things to work on and a lot of things that I could get better at, I probably wouldn’t be here in the first place. So that’s kind of my mindset.”
Kirk’s 2013-14 season began with his victory in the McGladrey Classic, where he won a final round duel with career non-winner Briny Baird, who played his college golf at Georgia Tech and Valdosta State.
He nearly added a second title in early 2014, finishing 2nd in the Hawaiian Open, one shot behind Jimmy Walker, who shot a final round 63 to Kirk’s 66. Although he posted a number of top 20 finishes in high profile events including the Masters, Players and British Open, Kirk went five months without a top 10 before tying for 4th in the Memorial, with three more months elapsing before his Playoffs triumph in Boston.
“This is incredibly unexpected for me,” Kirk said after his Deutsche Bank victory, which came over the likes of Horschel, McIlroy, Jason Day, Geoff Ogilvy and fellow ex-Bulldog Russell Henley.
“This is definitely the biggest win of my career against the strongest field under the biggest spotlight. I’ll just keep plugging away and work really hard and try to take another step up.”
Kirk has been playing at a high level since he was a junior golfer in Woodstock. He won four American Junior Golf Association tournaments, including one at the organization’s headquarters at Chateau Elan, played in two Canon Cups and was ranked among the top 10 juniors in the country before beginning his college career in Athens.
During his four seasons with the Bulldogs, Kirk helped lead the team to an NCAA Championship in 2005, was twice a first team All-American and a second team selection during Georgia’s championship season. His seven career victories were the most in team history before Henley broke that mark with eight career titles.
Shortly after graduating, Kirk played on the winning U.S. Walker Cup team in 2007 and made it to the finals of Q-school in his first attempt. He spent his first three seasons as a pro on the Nationwide (now Web.com) Tour, losing in a playoff in Knoxville as a rookie in 2008.
After a disappointing showing in ’09, Kirk rebounded with a sensational season in 2010, winning twice, finishing second in two other tournaments and ending up second in earnings after having to sit out the Tour Championship with a hand injury.
Before the injury, Kirk demonstrated he was ready for the PGA Tour, tying for 15th in the inaugural McGladrey Classic. Kirk settled on St. Simons Island after graduating from Georgia, and lived there until shortly before his victory in the McGladrey last year, returning to the north Atlanta suburbs to be closer to family, with his own family now including two young children.
Kirk gave friends and family plenty to cheer about in the Tour Championship at East Lake. He finished tied for 4th at 7-under 273, four shots behind Horschel and one out of a 2nd place tie. Kirk shared the first round lead with playing partner Horschel at 66, and was tied for 2nd at 134 after 36 holes, two behind Horschel, with his 68 highlighted by four straight birdies beginning at the seventh hole.
A third round 71 dropped Kirk four behind Horschel, with a double bogey on the par-3 sixth doing the most damage to Kirk’s scorecard. He hit his tee shot in the water again the final day, but salvaged a bogey, his only one in a 2-under 68.
Kirk was 4-over par on the sixth for the tournament, the margin by which he finished behind Horschel. Kirk collected $343,333 for his three-way for 4th, finishing the year with more than $4.85 million. After ending the regular season 10th in the FedExCup standings, Kirk placed 2nd after the Playoffs for an additional $3 million in bonus money. His earnings for 2014, not including the bonus money, exceeded his total winnings from his first three seasons combined.
At the end of the 2013-14 season, Kirk was a career best 22nd in the World Golf Rankings, and is one of five former UGA golfers of recent vintage (post-Bubba Watson) with serious designs on being part of a U.S. Ryder Cup revival.