DETROIT — Chris Kirk is exactly where he wants to be, and it’s not just because he finds himself in a tie atop the leaderboard at the Rocket Mortgage Classic.
After a second-round 67 on Friday, Kirk shares the lead at 12 under with Webb Simpson. But where he is and his confidence level have more to do with his journey to sobriety as he has dealt with alcoholism, anxiety and depression.
He spent the past 15 months focusing on his health and mental well-being as he faced his alcohol addiction and depression. Within those 15 months, Kirk took seven months away from the game of golf, to help get him back on the path he knew he needed to be on.
Kirk had experienced success on the PGA Tour before, climbing to No. 16 in the world golf rankings in 2015, but he faced more daunting opponents than other golfers on the course. He tried to quit drinking multiple times, but was unable to do it on his own.
His depression and anxiety had gotten the better of him, and he found himself turning to alcohol no matter how hard he tried to stop.
On April 29, 2019, Kirk knew he needed a change. He couldn’t keep living the same way and knew he couldn’t be the husband and father he wanted to be if he kept going down this path. On that day, he decided to make a change: to quit drinking and to seek help for his addiction.
Nearly a week later, on May 7, Kirk released a message on Twitter announcing he was only a day away from his 34th birthday, but he had already begun a new and better chapter in his life.
Tomorrow I will celebrate my 34th birthday but I have already begun a new and better chapter in my life. Thank you to my friends and family for being there for me. pic.twitter.com/XJjFYyojlh
— Chris Kirk (@Chris_Kirk_) May 7, 2019
Kirk took time off until November, working on himself rather than on his golf game. Having previously been wrapped up in the grind of professional golf, trying to be a perfect player, trying to make a living for his family and embracing the competitive nature of the game, Kirk came out of his leave of absence with a new perspective and a fresh outlook on his life and his professional career.
He had gone from a person filled with anxiety and fear to one enjoying the moment he is in, understanding he can’t control everything that happens.
Navigating life as a professional athlete can be overwhelming, and that lifestyle had taken over before he made the decision to step away. The constant travel and the emptiness of being alone on the road filled his mind and helped drive his alcoholism.
When he stopped playing golf, Kirk didn’t know what to think about his professional future. He didn’t much care at the time, either. He was focused on getting healthy and being there for his family.
“I definitely had feelings for a number of months there that I just had no desire to play golf,” Kirk said. “It wasn’t that, ‘Oh, I hate golf, I never want to do this again,’ I just had no real desire to do it. I felt busy working on what I was working on. But then eventually I started playing golf around home about once a week or so and pretty shortly after that, my love for the game came back and love for competing after that.”
That love for the game pushed him to return to golf this past November, and he now had a new challenge in front of him. As a sober man, he had to find his way back on the PGA Tour.
He has four PGA Tour victories: one in 2011, two in 2014, at The McGladrey Classic and The Deutsche Bank Championship, then again in 2015 at the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial.
He had found his way mentally and felt he could do it again professionally.
The first tournament he entered was the Mayakoba Classic, where he finished tied for 33rd. He then went on to miss five cuts and had another break in his PGA Tour career as the tour paused due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Coming back after publicly disclosing the reasons for his time away was nerve-racking, but having a better balance between his work and life gave him the confidence to push forward.
“Am I at the comfort level that I was five years ago? Probably not,” Kirk said. “But as far as my life in general is concerned, I’m probably at an all-time high comfort-wise. I think a lot of that carries over to my golf game and how I feel on the golf course.”
That level of comfort and calm in his life has given him a new perspective on his career. It’s not make-or-break and his performance doesn’t define who he is as a person.
That being said, he still wants to win and enjoy success on the tour.
Kirk made the cut at the Charles Schwab Challenge in June, finishing 60th in the first event back after the COVID-19 shutdown. The following week, he built off that momentum and won The King & Bear Classic on the Korn Ferry Tour, overcoming a 4-shot deficit heading into the final round.
That win brought a sense of relief.
His anxiety and depression hadn’t stopped him. Neither had alcoholism.
“It just gave me a little bit more belief. I think that before that, I knew that I was playing well, but obviously wasn’t seeing much in the way of results,” Kirk said. “But I was happy with my golf swing and felt like I was working on the right things with my putting, but nothing can replace the confidence you get from shooting some low numbers and playing well when it counts.”
He was once a top-20 player in the world golf rankings and is now sitting at No. 269 overall. Now, he has a piece of the lead at the Rocket Mortgage Classic after two rounds.
Despite that ranking, he said he’s right where he wants to be — with his friends, his family, his own mental health. While a victory on the Korn Ferry Tour two weeks ago gave him some validation that he’s doing the right things, he wants to make sure he’s first following the right course in his life.
He isn’t as controlling and anxious about every aspect of his golf game anymore. To win again on the PGA Tour would be a welcome feeling. It’s something he has been searching for and competing for, but in this new state of mind, Kirk knows he has so much more around him.
“It’s difficult for me to really even think about [a win], of what exactly it would mean,” Kirk said. “It would be something that would be hugely important to me and probably pretty emotional, but we’re a long ways away from that.”