How Sentry winner Chris Kirk finds joy in his craft

KAPALUA, Hawaii – Chris Kirk’s stern, unflinching expression hid an emotion that has come to define this phase of his career. With birdies being made all around him on Kapalua’s back nine, Kirk looked like a player trying not to succumb to the Sunday afternoon anxiety that sinks so many.

But Kirk’s countenance is intentional, a conscious decision to hide what he is feeling so that he can focus solely on that which is immediately in front of him. He showed Sunday that his poker face is effective, but it also obscures an endearing aspect of his renaissance.

For Chris Kirk is now defined by joy. The man who stepped away from the TOUR because of alcohol abuse and depression has regained a satisfaction in his craft, and it has propelled his career to heights that he hasn’t seen in years. His victory on Sunday at The Sentry, where he withstood charges from Jordan Spieth and Sahith Theegala, is arguably the biggest of his career at age 38.

“I lost the joy of most things in life for awhile there,” Kirk said Sunday after his one-shot victory at Kapalua’s Plantation Course. “But, yeah, it’s certainly back. I think I just love how hard this is. Like, it’s so hard to be great at this, and I love the process that it takes. I love the work that it takes to try to be the best version of myself.”

Inspiration comes in two forms: extrinsic and intrinsic. Some are motivated by those things found outside of themselves, the honors and acclaim that come with success. But that can be fleeting, disappearing as soon as hard times come. Intrinsic motivation is derived from within. It is more lasting because, especially in a game as mercurial as golf, it is not dependent on the results.

Intrinsic motivation doesn’t guarantee success. But it is more satisfying.

“I definitely have fallen back in love with that process,” Kirk said. “Sometimes you get rewarded for it, like today, and sometimes you don’t. That’s just part of the deal. I think to be successful and to really enjoy your life as a PGA TOUR player you’ve got to love the work.”

That’s why Kirk was inspired to “flip over every rock” this offseason instead of resting contentedly. His dedication has paid immediate dividends.

“Let’s … go down every path we can to get better,” he told his team after the FedExCup Playoffs. “I was motivated to come back and be better this year. It’s working so far.”

By winning the opening event of the 2024 season – and the first of eight Signature Events, the limited-field tournaments that bring together the TOUR’s top players – he now sits atop the FedExCup standings, has earned his way back into the Masters and owns his biggest title since the 2014 Deutsche Bank Championship.

Kirk is expected to leap to 21st in the Official World Golf Ranking, as well. It is his highest position since 2015. That is when Kirk was in the midst of his best seasons. He finished second in the 2014 FedExCup and represented the United States in the following year’s Presidents Cup. He was just starting to fulfill the promise that he’d displayed at the University of Georgia – where he won the Hogan Award as college golf’s top player and was part of arguably the strongest U.S. Walker Cup team in history – when the toll of the TOUR’s itinerant lifestyle, and the loneliness of hotel rooms, got the best of him.

After multiple relapses, he stepped away from the TOUR for more than four months in 2019 to deal with alcohol abuse and depression.

His return to the winner’s circle started in an RV, just after pro golf resumed from its COVID-19 hiatus. Unable to get in the RBC Heritage, Kirk and caddie Michael Cromie made the six-hour drive from Kirk’s home in Athens, Georgia, to play a Korn Ferry Tour event in St. Augustine, Florida. Kirk won the tournament – his first victory of any kind since 2015 – and still recalls that win fondly, even if it came at a lower level than he’d been accustomed to competing on.

“That was a very special week, for sure,” Kirk said. “I remember Mike and I going down there in the RV and just kind of hanging out. I remember Mike driving a bunch and getting stuck at the gas station where he couldn’t get turned around. That week it was – and I still do my best to feel this way now – it was just the joy of competing.”

Kirk told that story last fall, after receiving the PGA TOUR Courage Award, which is presented to a person who, through courage and perseverance, overcomes adversity. It was a recognition of the road he’d taken to winning last year’s Cognizant Classic in The Palm Beaches, his first TOUR win in eight years.

The biggest victory of Kirk’s career came in the second event of the 2014 FedExCup Playoffs, and this edition of The Sentry featured a similarly strong assortment of talent. The 59-man field featured 10 of the top 12 players in the world. Sahith Theegala, seeking his second win in four starts, finished second after a final-round 63. Former world No. 1 Jordan Spieth, who won this event in 2016, was third. Scottie Scheffler (T5), Collin Morikawa (T5), Xander Schauffele (T10), Jason Day (T10) and reigning Open champion Brian Harman (T5) all were in the top 10, as well.

Kirk took a one-shot lead into the final round after shooting 67-65-66 in the first three rounds. Theegala overtook him with six consecutive birdies to start the back nine and Spieth tied him with five straight birdies on Nos. 7-11 and then two more at Nos. 14 and 15. After Theegala parred 18, Kirk effectively ended the tournament by hitting a 5-iron to 2 feet on the 17th hole despite swirling winds.

“I’m very proud, very, very proud of that shot, that I was able to make the right call,” Kirk said. “Talk about a tough shot to commit to. When you’re about to pull 7 and you end up hitting 5, that doesn’t happen ever. That never happens. So to be able to commit to it like I did and make that good of a swing was an incredible feeling.”

Kirk parred the final hole to shoot 8-under 65 and win by one. When questions in his post-victory press conference turned to his past struggles, Kirk was asked if he ever tired talking about that time of his life. He does not.

“I hope it stays with me forever. It’s a huge part of my life still now,” Kirk said. “Definitely the best thing that I’ve ever done in my life is to get sober. … It’s 100% the reason why I’m able to do what I do.”