At Honda, Chris Kirk makes the most of his second chance
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Written by Jeff Babineau @JeffBabz62
PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Chris Kirk had waited what seemed to be an eternity to win again on the PGA TOUR, having not collected a trophy in nearly eight years. That's 2,836 days. His chief combatant Sunday at The Honda Classic at PGA National was a confident 34-year-old PGA TOUR rookie who almost didn’t get to the TOUR, which was his lifelong dream. Period.
On one of the more demanding golf courses on the schedule, one of the two was destined to leave with a trophy on an action-packed final day, even if the two had to go extra holes, which they did. Kirk and Eric Cole had a nice back-and-forth tussle in the final group, each competitor finishing regulation in 14-under 266 – a new tournament record on the Champion course.
In the end, it was the seasoned Kirk prevailing after nearly handing the tournament away to Cole when Kirk hit his approach short into a rock wall that fronts the edge of the green on the 72nd hole.
Chris Kirk’s Round 4 highlights from Honda
Fortunately, Kirk got another chance. He has experience making very good use of those.
Kirk, 37, is a winner on TOUR for the fifth time now. He is headed back to the Masters (his three boys – Sawyer, Foster and Wilder, are old enough to enjoy it this time – and their dad cannot wait until the Wednesday Par 3 Contest). Kirk promises to savor all those good perks that come with winning. To think, he came close to nearly throwing it all away. Everything. His career. His great life on TOUR. And most regrettably, he said he nearly lost his family, too.
Sunday’s victory carried extra significance because Kirk won after choosing to live a life of sobriety nearly four years ago. He never volunteered to be a poster boy in discussing his road, but he also knows when he does great things, his accomplishments can inspire many who have endured the depths he did.
“I owe everything that I have in my entire life to my sobriety,” Kirk said Sunday evening, the winner’s glass Honda Classic trophy at his side. “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 were 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 (sobriety).”
Chris Kirk news conference after winning The Honda Classic
Kirk left with the trophy, but much of the day belonged to Cole, the 34-year-old rookie playing in only his 15th PGA TOUR event. Cole was impressive, and even when his swing got loose early in the round, he fought, he scrambled, and he stuck around. You don’t get to be a rookie on TOUR in your mid-30s without those traits that belong to a fighter.
Cole started the day two shots behind Kirk, and not knowing what to expect trying to perform for the first time on such a big stage. He responded beautifully, shooting 67. When Kirk made bogey at the short 13th and Cole, who had a red-hot putter, made his fourth birdie of the round, suddenly Cole had the lead.
Cole had a golden chance to win in regulation after Kirk’s miscue on the 72nd hole, but he was unable to make birdie from the left of the 18th green, settling for par after his pitch across the slick green raced past the hole and he missed the putt coming back.
“I’m backing him to get up-and-down from there every single time,” said Cole’s caddie, Reed Cochran, son of former PGA TOUR winner Russ Cochran. “This is the start of something for Eric; it’s not the end of anything. He’s the real deal.”
Cole had mixed emotions as night started to take over Sunday. He loved being in contention, and he can’t wait to get back there. But he also felt a little empty not leaving with a trophy. His 12-foot putt for birdie after a terrific bunker shot on the second playoff hole caught a good portion of the hole, but it lipped out.
“I'm a little disappointed,” Cole said. “Obviously I wanted to win, but I didn't have my best game today, especially ball-striking, and I hung in there pretty tough, and I was proud of that.”
Cole has battled health issues (he is a Type 1 diabetic and has Addison’s Disease), and as he toiled for years on mini-tours, he thought he’d get to the PGA TOUR a lot sooner than he did. Kirk never had met him and only knew he was a rookie. When he saw Cole’s boyish looks on the first tee, he figured he was 24, not 34.
"I think he'll stick for quite a while," Kirk said. "He's got a really great game. I was impressed by the way he hit it. He putted incredible (Cole made 133 feet of putts on Sunday). He was just really solid all around."
Cole, who lives not far from PGA National, in Delray Beach, owns 56 victories on a developmental tour called the Minor League Golf Tour. Winning is winning, as he pointed out on Saturday, and the ball doesn't know what tour it's playing on any given day. When Cole gets his next opening, don’t be surprised if he steps right through it.
Eric Cole’s Round 4 highlights from Honda
Cole is the son of PGA TOUR winner Bobby Cole and former LPGA Rookie of the Year Laura Baugh, who walked with him every step of the way over the weekend.
“I just love to watch somebody I love play the sport that I love,” Baugh said after hugging her son near the scoring area when all was done. “How does it get any better than that? Eric is a winner. He is used to winning. When you get him under the gun the last few holes, he takes charge.
“Sure, these are elite players, the best in the world. But to me, what Eric did today really wasn’t a surprise.”
Two pros, and two vastly different paths on getting to this point. And only one trophy. Cole will try again at this week's Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by Mastercard, where he received a sponsor exemption. Kirk was off to celebrate his long-awaited win. Sepp Straka, one of his housemates this week and last year's Honda winner, was pouring Diet Cokes back at the house.