PHOENIX — Chris Kirk is winning, even if his name is nowhere near the top of the leaderboard. But his biggest challenge isn’t just hitting fairways and greens, or seeing how many birdies he can make. Another number is far more important — 647 days.
"I certainly realized that, without my sobriety, I wouldn't have a family, I wouldn't have this career. By this point, I probably wouldn't have much of much of anything, and would be living a pretty miserable life," Kirk told ABC15 prior to teeing off in Thursday's first round of the Waste Management Phoenix Open. "So yeah, it is all kind of a bonus, I guess, if you look at it that way."
Kirk joined the PGA Tour in 2011, and over the next six seasons, he won four times. In 2014, he finished 2nd in the FedEx Cup standings, and the following year he made the Presidents Cup team.
"I always liked to drink, but it wasn't really an issue for me at that point."
That all started to change during the 2017 and 2018 seasons.
"My drinking had definitely progressed, and my anxiety kind of went hand-in-hand with that. Each one made the other one worse. I got to the point where whenever I did play well, I just hated, hated how it felt being nervous and being in that situation. It just felt awful. Almost to the point where I didn't want to play and was just kind of like, what's the point of me doing this if whenever I play well, I feel this bad," Kirk said. "It just kind of slowly built and built and built and got to the point where I wasn't driving the ship anymore."
For six months, Kirk tried to right the ship while continuing to compete, but he relapsed several times. That was the breaking point for a more drastic approach. On May 7, 2019, Kirk announced he would be taking an indefinite leave of absence from the PGA Tour to deal with his alcoholism and depression.
"I think three and a half months, I didn't touch a club. At least a few of those months, I really doubted whether I whether I actually wanted to do this anymore."
But as he started to find himself again, so too did his love for the game. He returned to the tour six months later.
Fast forward to three weeks ago in Hawaii, the last tournament before Kirk’s major medical exemption expired and he would lose his full-time place on the tour, unless he finished in the top three. He placed second.
"Obviously, things are very different for me now and my perspective on a lot of things is very different," he said. "That was one of the one of the first few times in quite a while that I've been able to be in that situation where you're really, really nervous, and just really be able to, as I'm going through it, take a step back and really just enjoy the fact that I was there."
Kirk acknowledges he’s a work in progress, but his journey is an open book.
"The worst thing that I did was trying to keep it all inside and try to contain all of it," he said. "Trying to sort of feel like I was in control, and the more I tried to control it, the less I controlled. Now I feel like the more I just let the feelings and thoughts that I have, just let them be and talk to other people about it, then it just normalizes everything, and it makes me feel a lot more comfortable in that you can have these thoughts and feelings that you think are crazy, but they're really not. It's all stuff that so many other people are dealing with."