Chris Kirk completes his miraculous career comeback at the Sony Open

Chris Kirk, fresh off a second-place at the Sony Open on Sunday, is now a far cry from the man who struggled for years with alcoholism

Chris Kirk didn’t get the trophy this weekend at the Sony Open in Hawaii, but he still walked away feeling like a winner.

The 35-year-old was playing on the final week of a medical exemption. He needed 148 FedEx Cup points to keep his PGA Tour card for the remainder of the season, which only a top-three finish would give him. He ended up tied for second place, playing his final 13 holes in seven-under to finish a shot behind champion Kevin Na. The runner-up showing got him 245 points and ensures he’ll get to pick his own schedule for the remainder of the season.

It’s certainly a high for a player who’s experienced so many lows in both his life and career. Kirk won a FedEx Cup playoff event, the Deutsche Bank Championship, in 2014 and finished second to Billy Horschel in the final FedEx Cup standings. In 2015, he reached as high as 16th in the World Golf Rankings after winning at Colonial, his fourth and last PGA Tour win.

But, away from the public adulation that accompanied that success, Kirk was battling his own inner demons. He traveled the tour alone while his wife Tahnee stayed home with their three young children in Athens, Georgia. He started drinking beer to excess before switching to hard liquor in 2017. Before long, Kirk realized he had an alcohol problem.

Kirk’s personal journey is an inspirational one

He made several attempts to quit before finally doing so for good on April 29, 2019. Through all those dark days, Kirk was still capable of playing well occasionally, with four top-10 finishes in 2018. But after that fateful April day, he announced he was taking an indefinite leave of absence to deal with his problem. He wouldn’t play again for six months, his world ranking which had once put him among the elite of the sport dropping to 522nd.

Kirk was forced to drop down to the Korn Ferry Tour in 2020 and won his first tournament anywhere in more than five years last June. His second-place finish at the Sony Open brought his world ranking back up to 128th. More importantly, it gave him the freedom to no longer have to worry where his next paycheck was going to come from.

“It totally changes everything being able to be back to picking my schedule like I’m used to over the last number of years. It’s huge,” he said on Sunday. “It’s incredible. I would have never guessed that it would work out this way this week, needing a top-three finish to keep going. But you can see how much things are out of your control and when you play well and things work out thankfully.”

Kirk came to the 18th hole at Waialae Country Club at 19-under. A birdie on the par-five would get him into the top-three; anything less would leave him scrambling to secure whatever sponsor’s exemptions he could get the rest of the season. Already he had recovered from two eagle bogeys on his round, erasing them with three straight birdies on holes 12-14. His second shot came up short of the green, leaving him 78 feet from the hole.

It was the most important shot Kirk has faced in years, and he executed it beautifully. His chip settled less than two feet away, leaving him a tap-in birdie. The long road back from years of struggle was finally over.

Kirk’s battle with alcoholism and depression left him with a new perspective. He’s no longer afraid of who he is, afraid of being exposed in front of an audience. He doesn’t have to hide anymore.

“I mean, it’s more everything than anything. I think that there were a number of years there where I just wasn’t very happy with who I was and what I was doing and I was just kind of trying to hide from that,” he said. “I chose alcohol to kind of get me away from where I was. You know, a lot of lying and hiding and the life that you live in that situation.

“But I think the biggest perspective for me is…I can wake up every day and I’m happy that i am who I am, and I have nothing to hide. You know, I just feel like I’m doing the best I can and enjoying life. It’s as simple as that.”

So while Na got to add the title to his resume, Kirk got something just as important. He found his identity again, not in a bottle but on the golf course where he belongs.