Golf

What Chris Kirk did off the golf course means way more to him than what he is doing on it

  • ESPN staff writer
  • Joined ESPN in 2011
  • Graduated from Central Michigan

DETROIT — Chris Kirk is exactly where he wants to be, and it’s not just because he finds himself sitting tied atop the leaderboard in The Rocket Mortgage Classic.

After a second-round 67, Kirk is tied for the lead at 12 under with Webb Simpson after two rounds with a shot at winning the tournament. But where he’s at and his confidence level has more to with his battle with alcoholism, anxiety and depression after working towards sobriety.

He took the past 15 months to focus on his health and mental well-being as he battled his alcohol addiction and depression. Within those 15 months, Kirk took seven months off, away from the game, to help get him back on the path he knew he needed to be on.

He had seen success on the PGA Tour before, climbing to No. 16 in the world golf rankings in 2015, but he was battling and fighting much more than other golfers on the course. He tried to quit drinking multiple times, but was unable to do it on his own.

His depression and anxiety had gotten the best of him and he found himself going back to the bottle no matter how hard he tried to stop.

On April 29, 2019, Kirk knew he needed a change. He couldn’t keep living this way and knew he couldn’t be the husband and father he wanted to be if he kept down this path. On that day, he decided to make a change, to quit drinking and to seek help for his addiction.

Nearly a week later, on May 7, Kirk released a message on Twitter announcing he was only a day away from his 34th birthday, but he had already begun a new and better chapter in his life.

Kirk took time off until November, working on himself rather than perfecting his golf game. Having been wrapped up in the grind of professional golf, trying to be a perfect player, trying to make a living for his family and embracing the competitive nature of the game, Kirk came out of his leave of absence with a new perspective and a fresh outlook on his life and his professional career.

He had gone from a person filled with anxiety and fear to enjoying the moment he is in, understanding he can’t control everything that happens.

Navigating life as a professional athlete can be overwhelming and that lifestyle took over. The constant travel and the emptiness of being alone on the road filled his mind and helped drive his alcoholism.

When he stopped playing golf, he didn’t know what to think about his future. He didn’t much care at the time, either. He was focused on getting healthy and being there for his family.

“I definitely had feelings for a number of months there that I just had no desire to play golf,” Kirk said. “It wasn’t that, ‘Oh, I hate golf, I never want to do this again,’ I just had no real desire to do it. I felt busy working on what I was working on. But then eventually I started playing golf around home about once a week or so and pretty shortly after that, my love for the game came back and love for competing after that.”

That love for the game pushed him to return to golf this past November, and he now had a new challenge in front of him. As a sober man, he had to find his way back on the PGA Tour.

He has four PGA Tour victories; one in 2011, twice in 2014 at The McGladrey Classic and The Deutsche Bank Championship, then again in 2015 at the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial.

He found his way mentally and felt he could do it again professionally.

The first tournament he entered was the Mayakoba Classic, where he finished tied for 33rd. He then went on to miss five cuts and saw another break in his PGA Tour career as the Tour paused due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Coming back from something so public was naturally nerve wracking, but having a better balance between his work and life gave him the confidence to push forward.

“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. I think a lot of that carries over to my golf game and how I feel on the golf course.”

That level of comfort and calm in his life has given him a new perspective on his career. It’s not make-or-break and his performance doesn’t define who he is as a person.

That being said, he still wants to win and wants to see success on the tour.

Kirk made the cut at the Charles Schwab Challenge in June, finishing 60th in the first event back after the COVID-19 shutdown. The following week, he built off that momentum and won The King & Bear Classic on the Korn Ferry Tour, overcoming a four-shot deficit heading in to the final round.

That win was a sense of relief.

His battle with anxiety and depression hadn’t won. His alcoholism hadn’t won.

“It just gave me a little bit more belief. I think that before that, I knew that I was playing well, but obviously wasn’t seeing much in the way of results,” Kirk said. “But I was happy with my golf swing and felt like I was working on the right things with my putting, but nothing can replace the confidence you get from shooting some low numbers and playing well when it counts.”

He was once a top-20 player in the world golf rankings and is now sitting at No. 265 overall. Now, he has a piece of the lead at the Rocket Mortgage Classic after two rounds.

Despite that ranking, he’s right where he wants to be — with his friends, his family, his own mental health. While a win on the Korn Ferry Tour two weeks ago gave him some validation that he’s doing the right things, he wants to make sure he’s first following the right course in his life.

He isn’t as controlling and anxious about every aspect of his golf game anymore. He wants to win again on the PGA Tour would be a welcome feeling. It’s something he’s searching for and competing for, but in this new mental state, Kirk knows he has so much more around him.

“It’s difficult for me to really even think about (a win), of what exactly it would mean,” Kirk said. “It would be something that would be hugely important to me and probably pretty emotional, but we’re a long ways away from that.”

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