The Mercury News

Kirk’s long road back ends with positive finish

- By Doug Ferguson

The scene was familiar on the PGA Tour, except that it typically involves the winner. The Sony Open wasn’t even over and Chris Kirk had reason to celebrate.

He was some 80 feet away to the right of the 18th green, the worst angle for a pin tucked to the right, but just enough room for a reasonable chance. Kirk’s pitch was perfect, leading to a birdie that gave him a share of the lead after his fourth consecutiv­e round of 65.

Brendon Todd, who played with Kirk at Georgia, greeted him with a hug. Kevin Mitchell, another former Georgia player, dropped by on the practice range for more congratula­tions.

This was as much about returning than winning.

Kirk came up one shot short on Sunday as Kevin Na rallied on the back nine with three straight birdies to take the lead, and a simple up-and-down behind the 18th green for a final birdie that gave him a one-shot victory.

That was a winning comeback. Kirk had one of his own.

He walked away from the game in May 2019 for alcoholism and depression. He had reached a point through anxiety and pressure where he was trying to drink the right amount of booze to feel normal. He realized too much would make him terrible, and not having anything to drink would make him feel weird.

Along with his four wins, the highlight of his career was at the Presidents Cup in 2015 when he holed a 15-foot putt on the final hole in South Korea, the most pivotal of shots that led to a tight U.S. victory.

“I would say in 2013, 2014, 2015, when I was kind of at the peak of my career, that was kind of the beginning,” Kirk said. “Alcoholism is a very progressiv­e disease, so at that time I probably was not an alcoholic; I was just on my way to being one. After the next few years, things kind of got worse.”

Once he was on the road to recovery, helped along by the support of his wife and three young sons, it was a matter of his career. The tour gave him a major medical extension for the time he missed, giving him a set number of tournament­s to do well enough to regain his full status.

The Sony Open was the last event. He needed a two-way tie for third.

Without that birdie on the final hole, Kirk would have finished in a four-way tie for third.

Kirk still could have played in tournament­s that had room for him as a four-time PGA Tour winner, or received sponsor exemptions. Still, this was a burden lifted.

“It totally changes everything being able to be back to picking my schedule like I’m used to over the last number of years,” he said. “It’s huge. To go into a week and say I’ve got to finish top three to keep going and do it is, you know, silly. I’m thankful God put me in a great situation, and you never know what’s going to happen.” THOMAS TO GO ON TRAINING PRO

GRAM>> Justin Thomas intends to go through an individual training program to “become a better person” after he was picked up uttering a homophobic slur under his breath when he missed a putt at a tournament in Hawaii this month.

Clothing brand Ralph Lauren ended its longtime sponsorshi­p with Thomas following the incident two weeks ago, which the No. 3-ranked American golfer described as “humiliatin­g and embarrassi­ng and it’s not me.”

Speaking from the Abu Dhabi Championsh­ip, where he will be playing this week in a rare appearance on the European Tour, Thomas said he was upset but respected the decision.

“I spoke with them, along with all my sponsors, and although I apologized, just like it was then it’s an opportunit­y for me to grow and I felt like it was something we could have done together and gone through that process,” he said. “They just felt like they needed to move on so that’s exactly what I’m doing as well.

“I wasn’t disappoint­ed,” Thomas added, “because I put them in a terrible position. I was just more upset. I had a great relationsh­ip with a lot of people there and like I said we had the opportunit­y to do it all together.” RAHM: INJURY FORCED THE AMERICAN EXPRESS WITHDRAWAL >> Jon Rahm said an injury suffered in the gym led to his withdrawal from The American Express that begins today.

Rahm pulled out of the event on Monday without citing a reason. However, he told SiriusXM Radio on Wednesday that he suffered an undisclose­d muscle injury working out last week and didn’t want to risk making it worse.

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