Chris Kirk emerged from a tense, dramatic Sunday showdown at the Honda Classic with upstart Eric Cole and ended an eight-year winless drought on the PGA Tour.
Kirk and Cole separated themselves from the rest down the difficult stretch at PGA National and it turned into a match play situation over the final four holes.
After going back and forth for the lead over the back nine, Kirk and Cole were tied at 14-under with just three holes to play. At the par four 16th, Kirk’s second barely cleared the bunker and stopped just 11 feet from the hole. Cole two-putted for par from 19 feet then Kirk sank his birdie putt to take the lead. Two-putt pars by both send the duo to the closing par five 18th.
It was there that Kirk made his biggest mistake of the week. Both players were in good shape. Kirk’s second started too far right, didn’t draw enough and bounced off the stone wall supporting the green. His ball bounced back into the water, falling just short of the floating Honda SUV on display.
Cole second was pin-high left but his third shot went too far and settled against the greenside fringe. Kirk failed to make his par effort from 13 feet. A par by Cole sent it to a playoff.
Kirk’s drive found the rough and a tree forced him to lay-up. Cole’s second found the greenside bunker left — but he faced a 100-foot bunker shot.
Kirk applied the pressure when his 60-degree wedge shot from 100 yards stopped inside a foot from the cup. Cole’s bunker shot left him just inside 11 feet to tie but his putt lipped out. Prior to that, Cole had made virtually everything he looked at all afternoon.
Cole is the son of Laugh Baugh, face of the LPGA Tour in the early 70s and Bobby Cole , a one-time winner on on the PGA Tour. Although he didn’t win, Cole was consoled by the $900,000-plus second place money.
For Kirk, he played it cool and calm all day. “Coming down the stretch I felt good,” he said before admitting he made a “bad swing at the wrong time,” on that 72nd hole. “I just fought really, really hard today,” Kirk said. “I didn’t play my absolute best, but I never gave up.”
Kirk was pleased to hear NBC analyst Paul Azinger said he played like an “emotionless robot.”
“I loved that,” Kirk said. “I absolutely loved it. I said today, I’m going to be an emotionless robot and I’m going to go stick to my guns and play aggressive and try to do the best I can.”
Kirk overcame struggles with alcohol abuse and depression. Kirk took an indefinite leave from the Tour in May 2019. His life was in a downward spiral and he attempted to get it back on track on his own. After returning, he played in 11 events in the 2019-20 season and missed five cuts. He had one top 25 finish.
But his game slowly has been coming back to form since. From the start of the 2020-21 season to this week, he had 10 top-10 finishes, including a runner-up in the 2021 Sony Open in Hawaii.
Kirk’s last three starts entering Honda: third at the Sony Open in Hawaii, tied for third at the American Express, missed cut at the WM Phoenix Open.
Kirk was emotional after the win. “I can’t yet,” he said when asked to express what he was feeling. He waited a moment then said, “I just have so much to be thankful for, so much I’m grateful for — sobriety and support from my family.”
Kirk added: “I was obviously very, very nervous (all day). Eighteen was a bad swing at the wrong time. Thank God it worked out.”
Future Of Honda Classic — New Sponsor, New Date?”
After a long run as title sponsor, Honda is saying farewell but the Tour’s only stop in South Florida isn’t going away.
Jack Nicklaus emphasized that on Sunday. “The (PGA) Tour is assuring me we’ll have a better date and better field (next year),” Nicklaus said when he sat in on the NBC telecast.