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A sobering return for Chris Kirk

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NORTON, MA - AUGUST 31:  Chris Kirk of the United States looks on during the first round of the Dell Technologies Championship at TPC Boston on August 31, 2018 in Norton, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

NORTON, MA - AUGUST 31: Chris Kirk of the United States looks on during the first round of the Dell Technologies Championship at TPC Boston on August 31, 2018 in Norton, Massachusetts. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

After facing the harsh truth about his alcohol abuse, Chris Kirk is better now – and he’s ready to return to work next week at the Mayakoba Golf Classic

    Written by Helen Ross @helen_pgatour

    Editor's note: Chris Kirk won The Honda Classic for his first PGA TOUR victory since winning the Charles Schwab Challenge in 2015. This article was originally published November 11, 2019.

    Chris Kirk woke up in a fog that morning in his New Orleans hotel room. All the lights were on. He was still wearing the same clothes he had worn the previous day, rumpled now after a fitful night’s sleep.

    He asked himself a question.

    What did I just do?

    He already knew the answer. Kirk drank. That’s what he did. To excess. Again. But this was his wake-up call. Alone, hungover in the Big Easy, he knew he had to do something. So he went to his home in Athens, Georgia, and talked to his wife, Tahnee. Then he called his agent and a few other friends.

    “This may sound crazy,” he told them, “but I feel like if I am going to get better, this is what I have to do. I cannot play anymore. I have to be at home, and I have got to put all of my focus into this.”

    In telling the story, Kirk remembers the exact day: April 29, 2019.

    “That is a day that is definitely stuck in my mind and will be for a long time,” he says.

    It was the day Chris Kirk quit drinking.

    He’d previously tried twice to quit. Both times on his own. And he was able to stop drinking -- but after six or eight weeks, the anxiety and depression that contributed to the problem became too much to bear. So he reached for another vodka or bourbon or glass of wine, and the cycle started again.

    Kirk would later learn that’s what recovering alcoholics and addicts call “white knuckling.” It wasn’t until he found a support group to help him address the underlying issues that led him back to drinking that he was able to successfully quit.

    On May 7, a week after he had his last drink and a day before his 34th birthday, Kirk shared his decision to take a leave of absence from the PGA TOUR in a brutally honest post on his Twitter account.

    He explained that he had been dealing with alcohol abuse and depression for quite a while. He told his followers that he thought he could control it but after several relapses, he knew that wasn’t the case. So, he was going to take as much time as he needed to get help.

    Kirk called it a “new and better chapter in my life.” And as the four-time TOUR champion prepares for his return to competition at next week’s Mayakoba Golf Classic, his feelings haven’t changed. He’s looking forward to the future – whatever it might hold.

    “I have my health. I have my family. We are happy,” Kirk says.

    “It is just awesome to feel that way. To have gone from this overwhelming fear and anxiety of the future to now just pure excitement and embracing that I do not know what is going to happen because nobody knows what is going to happen. You spend all this time trying to control things and control what is going to happen next and the more that I have let go of that and the more that I have embraced that uncertainty, the happier I can be every day.

    “Like I said, I do not know what I am going to do tomorrow. I do not know what I am going to do the day after that, but it is all good. I know that I am going to come back and play some golf and if I enjoy it and I am successful at it, then great. If not, then that is all right too.”

    Kirk says there is a history of alcoholism in his family. Not his parents, but relatives on both sides. He also thinks that like so many other athletes, he’s a perfectionist and has an obsessive personality. It’s what drives them to put in the kind of hard work that takes them to the top of their respective games.

    Kirk was at that level in 2014 and ’15 when he won three times and climbed as high as No. 16 in the Official World Golf Ranking. He finished second in the FedExCup in 2014, as well.

    At the same time, he and Tahnee, whom he met at a friend’s blueberry farm on the way to the 2008 Sugar Bowl, were beginning to start a family. They now have three sons, aged 7, 5 and 2. As the boys got older and started school, life changed dramatically. Tahnee was at home, essentially a single mom. Kirk was spending more and more time alone, missing his wife and the kids and all those singular moments you can never get back.

    “I have gone from this perfect scenario that I had always dreamed of, to now close to 30 weeks a year on the road by myself,” Kirk says. “I was like ‘This was not part of the plan. This was not what I ever wanted.’

    “I think my drinking was accelerated by that and maybe my fitness level and my mental capacity were probably brought down as my drinking went up. I still was playing reasonably well, but not to the level I was a few years before that.”

    That’s when the anxiety kicked in. And snowballed. What if he started playing badly? What if he couldn’t afford the house he’d built on their 40-acre retreat outside Athens? On the surface, that seemed like an irrational one, but the fears seemed real to him.

    What if?

    Kirk says he never drank before or while he was playing but acknowledges there were more than a few times when he was in a fog when he teed off. Most of the time, he successfully walked a fine line, a delicate balancing act – making sure he didn’t drink so much that he couldn’t function the following day.

    “I've got to drink the right amount at night so that I feel normal the next day,” Kirk remembers. “Not too much so that I'm really hung over, but I can't not have anything or I'm going to feel weird the next day.”

    Kirk quit drinking beer at the end of 2017 after he looked at the scales and saw that there were 195 pounds on his 6-foot-3 frame. It was by far the most he’d ever weighed. Instead, he started drinking wine, vodka and soda or a few fingers of bourbon, neat with no ice.

    “Switching from beer to hard liquor probably accelerated things for me a little bit as well,” he says.

    When he was on the road, Kirk often started his evenings by having a couple of drinks with friends at dinner. When he got back to his hotel room, he usually kept drinking.

    “Sometimes it would be one or two more,” Kirk says. “Sometimes it would be more than that. It just depended on my mood and … what I felt like I needed at that time.”

    By November of 2018, Kirk knew he needed some changes in his life. There were times he felt like he wasn’t in control, and it worried him. So, he stopped drinking for the first time. It wasn’t a success long-term.

    “Something I have learned more recently is that, most people, if they drink a decent amount and they have a legitimate reason to not drink, everything gets better,” Kirk says. “Their mental clarity gets better. Their health gets better. All these things get better.

    “But for an alcoholic, if you just stop drinking on your own and do not really do anything else and just fight it every day, then everything gets worse. That was definitely the case for me. My anxiety about my golf. My anxiety about money. My anxiety about my relationships.

    “Everything spikes after that. I was in a really bad place, a much worse place mentally than when I was drinking.”

    Several weeks later, he started drinking again.

    Tahnee says she probably realized Kirk had a drinking problem before he did. His parents were concerned, too. So was her family.

    “But it was easy for me to just block it out or make excuses for it and pretend like it wasn't as bad as it was,” she says. “And there was a lot that I didn't notice. I didn't notice quite how much he was drinking. And then of course when he's traveling alone, I really don't notice it.

    “It was kind of easy for me to turn my head and pretend like it wasn't happening, which is unfortunate.”

    The times when the couple did talk about how much he was drinking, Kirk remembers being defensive. He knew it was putting a strain on their relationship, but he had yet to admit to himself – much less to anyone else – that he was an alcoholic.

    “I was just fighting it and fighting it,” Kirk recalls. “Finally, after a couple of relapses, if that is what you want to call it, in April it was just like, ‘OK, I can't do this anymore. I have got to change something because I am going to end up with nothing. …’

    “It was when I realized I just really, truly do not have control over this, because I really wanted to not be doing it and I still was.”

    That’s when Kirk decided to take the leave of absence. He talked to a psychiatrist who prescribed medication to help with the anxiety and the cravings. He also worked regularly with Dr. Greg Cartin, a sports psychologist who for the last six months has served as Kirk’s therapist. They spent hour after hour going over Chris’ mental issues without any mention of golf. He called a friend and started going with him to a support group where he found out he wasn’t the only person struggling with addiction. As he spoke to others, he learned they had the same thoughts and issues he was facing.

    He was alone in that hotel room in New Orleans when reality hit, but he was not alone in dealing with it.

    “When you are in the moment, you just do not understand it,” Kirk says. “… That helped me make sense of it. I realized just how powerless I was.”

    Tahnee remembers the conversation when he got back from New Orleans as being more of an announcement than a discussion. Regardless, she was glad he was getting the help and support he needed because trying to quit on his own was clearly not working.

    “I went through a lot of times where I thought, I don´t understand why you can´t just stop drinking,” Tahnee says. “Well, that´s because I just wasn't looking at it the right way … it took a lot of research and studying for me too, to understand more of what he was going through.

    “That's not just something that can be turned off. … It's been hard, but I think we're finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.”

    Kirk says Tahnee has been amazing – not just for standing with him as he came to grips with his addiction but also for keeping the entire family, her three boys, on track.

    “For me personally, the support from her staying by my side and that kind of feeling of unconditional love, just wants the best for me, wants the best for our family and that is huge,” Kirk says. “That goes a long way. I definitely have not made it easy on her lately.”

    Kirk has spent the summer getting used to his new normal back at a pastoral home where it’s not uncommon to see a handful of deer eating out in the pasture. Although he’s the first to tell you he’s not one to beat balls on the range, he does have a practice facility on the property. His two older boys, Sawyer and Foster, have room to ride on four-wheelers, play baseball or swim in the pool.

    “It's not too tough to convince them to get off the iPad or quit watching TV, because there's just so much to do outdoors here,” Kirk says.

    Kirk is the head coach for Sawyer’s baseball team and the assistant on Foster’s team, something he couldn’t do if he had been playing on TOUR all summer. He’s played golf with his buddies – for fun. He’s savored all the moments.

    A crew from PGA TOUR Entertainment stopped by one day to talk to Kirk about his recovery and the peaceful life he and Tahnee have created just south of where they went to college. After the film crew left, Sawyer – the oldest son – had a question.

    “Daddy, why are these people here today?”

    Kirk replied that they were “coming to check on me and see how I’m doing since I’ve been gone from the TOUR for a while.”

    As the words sunk in, Sawyer had another question.

    “Are you going back out to play?”

    Kirk said yes, and then he asked his son a question. “Are you excited for me to go back and play, or do you want me to stay at home?”

    Replied Sawyer: “Well, maybe you could just get enough money from coaching baseball.”

    Kirk said he appreciated the kind words but he isn’t making any money from coaching his baseball team.

    “Really?” Sawyer said. “They’re not paying you? You’re doing a good job, though.”

    Kirk is doing a good job staying sober and says each day has gotten easier than the last. He rarely thinks about alcohol, and when he does, it’s not in the sense of something he wants any more. Before, it seemed like the craving would never go away, calling it “something I was going to have to fight every 15 minutes for the rest of my life,” Kirk says.

    “That just seemed insurmountable.”

    Kirk’s 12-step program has given him peace and serenity. He understands now that his family, his health and his quality of life is more important than how many birdies or bogeys he makes. He’ll look for support groups in the cities where he plays, and he’s bought an RV to travel in to give him more of a sense of home.

    When Tahnee and the boys can’t be there, his teacher, Scott Hamilton, or his trainer will likely stay with him to help him feel more comfortable. He’s not worried about being in an environment where alcohol might be served, though.

    “Now that I am taking care of myself by diligently working my 12-step program, reading and attending meetings, I can stay mentally fit. That will allow me to handle anything that comes my way.”

    Kirk was overwhelmed by the support he received after making his announcement on May 7. Not only have friends on TOUR like his Presidents Cup captain Jay Haas, Lucas Glover and Davis Love III, reached out, total strangers have shared inspirational stories of their own.

    “Now I can see how common this is,” Kirk says. “I think that the shame of all of this has gone as well. That is why I am so comfortable talking about it. It is all right. I am not even upset that I am an alcoholic. It is fine.

    “It is just something different that I have to deal with, but everybody has stuff they have to deal with. Everybody has issues. Everybody has stuff that is bothering them that they need to work on. This just happens to be my thing.

    “It does not make me a bad person. Over the last few months it has made me a much better person that I have realized and have taken action to do something about it. Now it is my hope that someone out there will read this story and see that there is a way out.”

    Kirk didn’t touch a golf club for the first 3-1/2 months he was home. He’s now playing a couple of times a week and has ramped up the practice for his return next week.

    “Now, it is my goal whenever I go play to just really, truly play for fun,” Kirk says. “… There is no doubt in my mind that I love playing golf and I love competing. If that is going to be playing Friday morning at Athens Country Club and trying to take 20 bucks off of one of my friends, then that is fine. My goal is to bring that same attitude when I return to the PGA TOUR.

    “I am not willing to go back to making it feel like a job. I am not willing to go back to beating myself up when I do not play well. That is something that is a struggle for every PGA TOUR player because you are out there. Everything is right there for everyone to see. When you play well, people treat you differently than when you do not play well. You have the tendency to treat yourself a lot differently when you play well than when you do not play well.”

    Kirk says he really has no expectations when he tees it up at Mayakoba in his first start on TOUR since he missed the cut in the team event at the Zurich Classic of New Orleans. He doesn’t know how he’ll feel about playing again, but he plans to embrace that uncertainty.

    “I guarantee you one thing,” Kirk says. “When I go out and play my first round, if I shoot 65 or 80 or anywhere in between, it is not going to matter to me. I am going to give it my best effort and I am going to really try to do as well as I can.

    “I am not willing to let it affect how I feel about myself anymore.”

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