NORTON — Fed up with his game and the way he was playing — not only at TPC Boston, but for the past month — Chris Kirk reached his tipping point on Friday, after opening the Deutsche Bank Championship with a sloppy 73.
Instead of doing what would be expected of a PGA Tour player struggling with his swing, Kirk shunned a trip to the range and did the unexpected. He headed to the Kids Zone at TPC Boston on Friday afternoon with his 2-year-old son and played a little putt-putt.
Three days later, it was hard to say what role, if any, that youthful detour played in Kirk’s unlikely tournament turnaround, which ended with him raising the Deutsche Bank Championship trophy Monday. But this much we know: Kirk putted lights-out the final three rounds, when there wasn’t a windmill or clown’s mouth to be found.
The less-heralded player in the next-to-last twosome by a mile — he was paired with Rory McIlroy for the second straight day — Kirk took it to the top-ranked player in the world, and everybody else. He played his last 37 holes without a bogey, and grabbed his third career win on the PGA Tour. It paid him $1.4 million from an $8 million purse, vaulted him from 17th to first in the FedEx Cup points race, and just might land Kirk on the US Ryder Cup team. Two wins this season is bound to get the attention of Tom Watson, the US captain who announces his three selections Tuesday.
“I’m still just in such shock that I actually won this tournament,” said Kirk, a 29-year-old from Atlanta. “This is definitely the biggest win of my career against the strongest field under the biggest spotlight. So I’m very proud of that and I’m very excited that I was able to accomplish this.”
It wasn’t easy, and came down to one of the last full swings of the tournament, made by someone else. Kirk did his part, shooting a bogey-free 66 Monday, which gave him a 66-64-66 bounceback after his first round, which now becomes the highest opening round by a winner in DBC history.
But a missed birdie putt at the 18th hole left Kirk at 15 under par, opening the door for Billy Horschel, who stood in the middle of the 18th fairway, trailing the leader by one shot. Holding a 6-iron for his second shot to the closing par-5, Horschel was a birdie away from forcing a playoff. An eagle would have given him a one-shot win.
Instead, Horschel dumped his approach into the hazard fronting the green, and when his fourth shot settled long and right of the hole, Kirk was the champion.
He got there by playing flawless golf over two days with McIlroy (think Watson will take that into account when making his Ryder Cup captain’s selections?): Kirk made 24 pars and 12 birdies while paired with McIlroy the final two rounds. The struggles that recently had frustrated Kirk — he missed the cut at the PGA Championship, and sandwiched a T41 at the Bridgestone and T53 at Barclays around it — seemed to float away when McIlroy appeared.
Kirk was still in chase mode Monday. Starting the final round two shots behind Russell Henley (the two both played at the University of Georgia, but didn’t overlap), Kirk caught up with a birdie at No. 9, when he rolled in an 11-foot putt.
That turned out to be a sign of things to come. Almost every tournament includes a handful of clutch putts made by the winner. Kirk made three of note on the back nine: A 23-footer for birdie at No. 13 to put him in the lead, a 15-footer at the 15th to save par and maintain his one-shot lead, and a 13-footer for birdie at No. 16, which temporarily gave Kirk a two-shot lead.
“I think looking back on it my par save on 15 will probably be the biggest one,” Kirk said. “My birdie putt on 13 definitely kind of got me going, but to pour that one right in the middle [on 15] kept my momentum going, for sure.”
Horschel answered with a birdie at No. 15 to climb within one, but couldn’t pull off the shot when he needed it most. The closing bogey capped a 69, and left Horschel tied for second at 13 under, with Henley (70) and Geoff Ogilvy, who was trying to pull off the improbable. Ogilvy, who missed the cut at the Barclays, assumed he would fall out of the top 100 on the points list, which would have made him ineligible for the DBC. Instead, he was the last man in, then put together a 65-65 finish to almost walk away with the victory.
“I had a really good last 27 holes. I was packing my bags 27 holes ago, now I’m on my way to Denver [and the third playoff event, reserved for the top 70],” said Ogilvy, who played his last 27 holes bogey-free, and 12 under par. “I missed the cut last week and I thought I was completely gone. I didn’t even think I was going to get here. I got a start here, played great on the weekend, and now I’m good to go next week.”
So is Kirk, who is guaranteed to make it to the season-ending Tour Championship, played in his Atlanta hometown. He might be asked to play some more golf after that, if Watson ends up adding Kirk to the Ryder Cup team.
On Friday, with Kirk stewing over that 73, mentioning the Ryder Cup to him likely would have been met with a snicker or sneer. But neither Kirk, nor anyone else, knew what was coming.
“I told my caddie [on Friday], ‘This isn’t any fun. I don’t feel like going to hit balls. I’ll see you tomorrow,’” Kirk said. “Shows you how ridiculous this game is. To come out and play three rounds, 66-64-66, to win, is beyond belief.”