ORLANDO, Fla. — When the small white ball disappeared into the cup on the 18th hole at PGA National early Sunday evening to mark the official end to the Honda Classic — in a sudden-death playoff, no less — a flood of emotions surged through Chris Kirk’s mind, body and soul.
The 37-year-old journeyman — as everyman nondescript as you can be alongside the megastars who currently dominate the PGA Tour landscape — not only was a tournament winner for the first time in 2,836 days, he was a winner for the first time as a sober man.
“I thought about how grateful I am for the things that have happened in my life the last handful of years, how grateful I am for the people who have helped me get back to where I am, how thankful I am for my wife sticking with me and believing in me when she probably shouldn’t have,’’ Kirk told The Post on Thursday after backing up his Honda victory with a 5-under-par 67 to stand two shots behind Jon Rahm after the first-round at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. “I just felt like the luckiest man on the planet.’’
There didn’t appear to be a lot of luck involved in Kirk’s opening round Thursday at Bay Hill, where he sandwiched seven birdies in between a bogey on his first hole and another on his last.
“Seven birdies after a bogey at the first and then bogey the last … pretty solid,’’ said Jordan Spieth, who played alongside Kirk. “It was a pretty unassuming 5-under that he shot.’’
Which fits, because Kirk is one of the most unassuming players on the PGA Tour — quiet, thoughtful, respectful and not an ounce of flash in his personality or his game.
This is what made Kirk the perfect alcoholic, meaning the alcoholic who no one has any idea is an alcoholic. His unassuming nature was the perfect disguise.
On the eve of his 34th birthday in May 2019, Kirk announced on social media that he would be taking an “indefinite leave” from golf to deal with his alcohol abuse and depression.
He was a four-time winner on the PGA Tour whose world ranking had peaked at 16th after his fourth PGA Tour victory at the Colonial in 2015.
At the time he walked away, ranked 188th and a mess personally, Kirk wasn’t certain he’d ever come back.
“When I went home, there was a good three months where I didn’t think that I wanted to play at all any more,’’ he said. “With the pressure and the loneliness of being on the road … I felt like golf is what did this to me when obviously that’s not the case.’’
Kirk’s rehab — not just from the help he got for his alcoholism but returning to the game — was methodical.
“After a little while, the desire to play golf for fun came back and I was playing once a week every Friday with some friends,’’ he said. “Then, months after that it slowly came back to where I was like, ‘I’d like to give this a shot again.’ I wanted to prove to myself that I was still good enough and that I could still do this. But winning on Tour was still pretty far from my mind at that time.’’
That’s what made Sunday night at the Honda so overwhelming for him.
“If I had gone home, gotten some help and gotten sober and then gone back out here two months later it wouldn’t have worked,’’ Kirk said.
Since Kirk returned to the PGA Tour — at the Mayakoba Golf Classic in November 2019 with his world ranking having plummeted to 303 — he’s gone out of his way to avoid the triggers that had him drinking himself to sleep at night during tournament weeks.
“I think I’ve stayed at a hotel by myself only a handful of times since then,’’ he said. “Not that I worry about [a relapse], but I just have so many bad memories of sitting in hotel rooms by myself drinking.’’
Now Kirk rents a house near each tournament site with some of his best friends on tour, including Sepp Straka, Grayson Murray, Brendan Todd and Denny McCarthy. That keeps him from being idle and alone.
“You shoot 75 and you get pissed for a minute and then you go back to the house and play cards or dice, shoot some pool, throw a baseball or watch a movie and hang out,’’ he said. “It’s made the quality of my life a thousand times better.’’
Kirk has gone from 2,836 days without a victory to one day at a time and has never been in a better place.