ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — LIV Golf chose to start its new season when the PGA Tour’s biggest stars were certain to be taking the week off. What the rival league got was a reminder that a tour offering no guarantees can still deliver when least expected.
The Honda Classic was the odd tournament out during five weeks of big-money events on the PGA Tour, one reason it attracted only eight players from the world’s top 50, the weakest field so far this year.
One of them was Chris Kirk, who stepped away from golf in 2019 to seek treatment for alcoholism and depression. Kirk once said that anxiety and pressure led him to find the right amount of booze he needed to feel normal.
There was a different variety of pressure Sunday at PGA National when Kirk was locked in a battle with 34-year-old Eric Cole, who had to overcome health issues of his own and an unusually long journey just to reach the big leagues.
Kirk delivered a clutch birdie on the 16th for the lead. He nearly gave it away with a bad swing at the wrong time, sending a fairway metal off the rocks and nearly onto a car parked on a platform in the middle of the lake right of the par-5 18th.
Instead, he won in playoff by nearly holing out with a wedge, leading to a TV interview unlike most others.
“I’m so grateful for my sobriety,” Kirk said, no longer in his role as emotional robot inside the ropes. “I’m so grateful for my family. I’m so grateful for everyone who supported me throughout the past three or four years.”
“I’m so thankful for my sobriety. I’m so thankful for my family.”
In 2019, @Chris_Kirk_ took a break from golf to battle alcohol abuse and depression.
Four years later, he’s once again a PGA TOUR champion. pic.twitter.com/O8v9xG9Sr0
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) February 26, 2023
Kirk is not driven purely by money. Otherwise, he would have played the previous week at Riviera with a $20 million purse. He didn’t feel the course suited him as well as PGA National, and he had an eye on his No. 47 world ranking, knowing the top 50 in a month’s time get into the Masters.
The win sends him back to Augusta National for the first time in seven years.
Not to be overlooked was Cole, who has 56 wins on the Minor League Golf Tour, the most recent one in January that paid him $1,500. That was about 5 miles from PGA National, where second place at the Honda Classic paid him $907,200.
Cole comes from golf stock. His father is former PGA Tour winner Bobby Cole of South Africa. His mother is Laura Baugh, a former LPGA Tour rookie of the year. She looked to be more nervous than Cole as she followed along on the back nine.
There was disappointment, sure, along with a touch of class. After Kirk hit his wedge tight in the playoff, Cole twice looked back and flashed him a thumbs-up.
Cole made a remarkably tough bunker shot look easy, but his 10-foot birdie putt to extend the playoff spun around the left side of the cup.
His road to this point hasn’t been easy. Cole was diagnosed while in college at Nova Southeastern University with Type 1 diabetes and Addison’s disease, which causes the adrenal glands to not produce enough hormones. His weight dropped to about 120 pounds (54 kg).
Cole spent some 10 years on mini-tours, and as he was starting to pile up top 10s on the Korn Ferry Tour last year, he learned his younger brother, Michael, died suddenly at age 28.
Cole has been thrown a lot in life, and with that comes refreshing humility. He is easy to cheer for, and he will be at Bay Hill this week for the Arnold Palmer Invitational on a sponsor exemption.
“I can’t wait to do it again,” he said.
And then there was Ryan Gerard, a 23-year-old from North Carolina who got the final spot in the Honda field through a Monday qualifier and then flirted with contention on the weekend. His fourth-place finish was worth $403,200 and earned him a spot in the Puerto Rico Open this week.
Meanwhile, across the Gulf of Mexico at Mayakoba, Charles Howell III won the season debut of LIV Golf with a flawless final round of 63 for a four-shot victory over Peter Uihlein.
— LIV Golf (@livgolf_league) February 27, 2023
Howell has a polished swing and impeccable manners, such a steady performer that he never lost his card since he joined the PGA Tour more than 20 years ago. But the narrative with Howell was that he doesn’t win as much as he should — three times in 607 starts as a pro on the PGA Tour.
No one ever said winning was easy, and maybe Howell got the last laugh. His final PGA Tour event before he left for LIV Golf last July pushed him over $42 million in career earnings.
On Sunday, he won $4 million for 54 holes. Howell now has made $6,995,333 in his six LIV Golf events, more than he earned in his last 95 starts on the PGA Tour dating to May 2018.
“Money was not a factor,” Howell said in July when he signed with LIV.
But when it comes to Howell, money is what people always talk about. And unless the team concept catches on and becomes the franchise Greg Norman believes it will, money will be the legacy of the Saudi-funded league.
One of the hard-hitting questions to Howell after he won was about the “stacked field” of 13 major champions and if he could put into context what it meant to beat them.
“I think the depth of the fields out here really need to be talked about and appreciated because these are 48 world-class golfers up here,” Howell said.
There were three times that many at the Honda Classic, and half of them had to worry about making the 36-hole cut.
One of them was Kirk, who earned $1.512 million and something money can’t buy.
He earned an invitation to the Masters.