Chris Kirk Makes Late Birdie To Take PGA Tour Season Opener At Kapalua

KAPALUA, Hawaii (AP) — Chris Kirk finds pure joy in golf from the work that’s required and how hard it is to succeed, and Sunday at The Sentry was plenty difficult.

A dozen players were lined up behind him, all of them capable of ripping off a low one.

The conditions were so placid the average score in the final round at Kapalua was 66.66, making this the lowest average score to par (6.34 under) of any round on the PGA Tour since it began keeping detailed records in 1983.

Tougher still was being tied for the lead, 209 yards away on the 17th hole with a gorge between him and the flag and a light wind that felt like it was blowing both directions.

Kirk went from a 7-iron to a 5-iron and hit what he considers the best shot of his career to 2 feet for birdie that sent him to an 8-under 65 and a one-shot victory over Sahith Theegala.

“When you’re about to pull 7 and you end up hitting 5, that doesn’t happen ever. That never happens,” he said. “So to be able to commit to it like I did and make that good of a swing was an incredible feeling.”

Kirk is happy to be competing again after stepping away in 2019 for alcoholism and depression, and he capped his long journey back last year by winning the Honda Classic. This was another big step, beating a world-class field on a day when any miss was costly.

Theegala stayed with him step for step until his 10-foot birdie putt swirled in and out of the cup, forcing him to settle for a 63. Jordan Spieth was tied for the lead when his tee shot on the 16th plugged into the sand right below the lip, effectively a one-shot penalty. He narrowly missed a 15-foot eagle on the final hole and shot 65 to finish third.

Kirk started the final round with a one-shot lead and had to post 65 to win by one. That was hard work. And there was a lot of joy beneath that emotionless demeanor.

There was a time when golf meant nothing to him as he cared only about salvaging a life that had become dependent on the drink.

“I love the process of working to be the best player that I can when I’m working on that, and then working on being as good of a father and husband as I can when I’m off the golf course,” he said. “It’s a constant process and I’m just loving every minute of it.”

It was the third straight year the winner at Kapalua posted a Sunday round of 8 under or better, and Kirk required no less to win the PGA Tour’s season opener. Theegala started two shots behind, shot 63 and it wasn’t quite enough.

“It’s really hard to be sad or upset about having a nice Sunday round,” Theegala said. “Parring the last hole leaves a little bit of a sour taste. Honestly, nothing but positives. I felt like I stayed in it until the very end.”

Kirk was tied when he hit 5-iron over the gorge to a right pin on the 17th, the ball rolling out to just over 2 feet for a tap-in birdie on the toughest hole on the back nine of the Plantation course. That allowed him to play the 18th conservatively, knowing a par would be enough for his sixth career PGA Tour victory.

He finished at 29-under 263 and earned $3.6 million from the $20 million purse, the first of eight signature events in the new PGA Tour model of big purses and elite fields.

The 38-year-old from Georgia looks as relaxed as anyone, a good fit for the islands. His greatest win remains his recovery from alcoholism and depression, which led to him stepping away for six months of treatment in 2019.

The PGA Tour honored him with its “Courage Award” — he was only the sixth recipient — at the end of last season. There was no better way to start the new year.

The victory assures him a spot in the Masters — he was just outside the top 50 in the world at the end of last year — and allows him to book a return trip to Kapalua to start next year. He was making his first appearance at The Sentry in eight years.

“I’m so thankful for these last five years. It’s been incredible,” Kirk said.

Spieth, who won in 2016 at Kapalua, stayed in the hunt all day with his five straight birdies around the turn. He caught up to Kirk and Theegala with birdies at the 14th and 15th. And then his chances all but ended with one swing on the 16th.

“It was a full shot (penalty) at a pretty pivotal time,” Spieth said. “But I’ve got to be a little tighter off the tee.”

Kirk could sense the importance of every putt, and the pressure mounted when he missed a good birdie chance on the reachable 14th with a pedestrian pitch and then missed a pair of putts from 12 feet — for eagle on No. 15 and birdie on No. 16.

But he delivered the key shot on the 17th, a birdie that gave him comfort playing the 18th and its spectacular view of the Pacific Ocean and the island of Molokai on the horizon.

Sungjae Im managed to get into the PGA Tour record books with 34 birdies for the week. The previous record for a 72-hole tournament was 32 set three times, most recently last year by Jon Rahm. That illustrates what kind of test the Plantation course has become.