The veteran walked away from the game last year, sitting out seven months of competition to deal with issues stemming from depression and alcohol abuse. He returned to the Tour in November, and instead of facing down demons during the pandemic, he relished the time he spent at home on his 40-acre estate in Athens, Georgia, with his wife and three sons.
Kirk was once as high as 16th in the world rankings, and he flashed some of that form last month during a spot start on the Korn Ferry Tour. He won the King & Bear Classic by a shot, making just a single bogey or worse across four days en route to his first win on any circuit in more than five years. After savoring that victory at home last week, he’s once again in the mix after rounds of 67-65 gave him a share of the 36-hole lead alongside Webb Simpson at the Rocket Mortgage Classic.
“I think I’m slowly getting there. Am I at the comfort level that I was five years ago? Probably not,” Kirk said. “But as far as my life in general is concerned, I’m probably at an all-time high comfort-wise. And I think a lot of that carries over to my golf game and how I feel on the golf course.”
Kirk has always been one of the Tour’s more stoic players, even during a career year in 2014 when he finished second in the FedExCup. But after struggles both on and off the course led him to consider walking away from the game entirely, he’s embracing a more laid-back approach now that he’s back inside the ropes. Kirk has friend Sam Straka on the bag this week, and the goal for the second round was simple: top the birdie total of Straka’s twin brother, Sepp, who shot a bogey-free 66 in the morning wave.
Thanks in large part to hole-outs from off the green on Nos. 11 and 12, Kirk won the birdie side bet, 8 to 6.
“I think that I just take all of this a little bit less seriously,” Kirk said. “Obviously I want to play well and I want to compete and I want to try to win tournaments, but I don’t think this feels as much of life and death as maybe it used to.”
Kirk’s last win on the PGA Tour came at Colonial back in 2015, and he admitted that in his return to Fort Worth last month he didn’t feel like one of the best players in the field while walking the range. A victory on the developmental circuit helped, as did a strong start this week in the Motor City. But for Kirk, the road to recovery remains a work in progress – including on the course.
“It doesn’t come back overnight, that’s for sure,” Kirk said. “I think two weeks ago in St. Augustine, it’s just validation that my good is good enough, and it’s something that I already knew. But knowing and doing are two very different things.”