AUGUSTA — Chris Kirk is 30 years old and has been a professional golfer since 2007. He has won almost $10 million dollars and enjoys a financial security than most of his peers are far from equaling. To this former Georgia All-American, however, there is considerable unfinished business in his life.
To begin with, he has aspirations to finish first in a major championship. A good place to start would be this week in Augusta where he has played, dating back to his college days at the University of Georgia.
If you reflect back on his career, high marks ensue. He has been affiliated with success for years, bringing him to the point where the next big step should be on the horizon.
Never one to forecast with reckless abandon, he, nonetheless, invests his time on the PGA Tour with confidence that he belongs and that his best days are in the foreseeable future. Now that he is a four time winner on the tour, he is far from satisfied. There are bigger prizes out there — like The Masters.
“This is my third Masters,” he says. “I am eager to play and to play well. To play well here, you must learn to manage the greens. Alister MacKenize was a genius who created greens which are very difficult to read. The greens are so subtle, some seeming to be uphill and are not. Likewise, some seem to be downhill but aren’t.
“The Masters is such a marvelous tournament, but there are so many things going on that you have to manage the distractions. When you are out on the course, you quickly sense that the pressure is so much greater — like it is at all majors.”
The Augusta National sets up nicely for Chris, who has always been a right to left player. He came here for practice rounds in advance of the tournament and took last week off to concentrate on preparation for golf’s first major of the season.
Reflecting further on the design of Alister MacKenzie, Kirk has a penchant for study of the subtleties of golf course design. To understand how to play a golf course, you have to understand what the architect is up to. He has gained an appreciation, for example, for Pete Dye. “He is amazing,” Kirk says of Dye. He knows how to make a simple hole difficult. We see that in his courses everywhere.”
Kirk recently moved his family to North Oconee, six miles from downtown Athens where he can enjoy the food and music scene. And, of course, Georgia football. He has his privacy, yet his two young sons can romp about outdoors and Kirk has acreage “to play with.”
If your career includes travel, you work for stability and comfort with your family, and Kirk has gotten an emotional lift from his move back to where it all began for him. He was impressed with Georgia’s golf facilities from the beginning and was always, like his teammates, comfortable with the Bulldog coach, Chris Haack.
His resume took root with success at the outset. He made All-America twice, which meant that his ability as a player was at a high level in college. He played on winning Walker Cup and Palmer Cup teams. He was a member of the National Championship team at Georgia in 2005.
A funny thing happened in Ft. Worth, Texas, in 2006, which significantly influenced his career. The Ben Hogan award annually is presented to the top college player in the country.
As it is with the Heisman Trophy, the top three finalists are invited to Ft. Worth where the winner is announced. If Kirk had won the award, he likely would have turned professional.
Since he did not win the Hogan Award, he decided to remain in school another year, which turned out to become an emotionally positive one. He became determined to play well enough to win the Hogan Award and to finish degree requirements.
His plans materialized as he had wished for. He did win the Hogan Award in 2007, setting the school record the next year for career tournaments won with seven and couldn’t wait to take his diploma home to his mother who passionately wanted him to obtain his degree. “This is for you,” he told her with the greatest of affection.
Chris realizes he can enjoy success and make money on the PGA tour, but he came out here expecting to win tournaments. He believes that the best is yet to come. He is primed to master Alister MacKenzie’s subtleties this week, knowing that if he succeeds he could make some noise on the weekend.
Loran Smith is an athletic administrator at the University of Georgia.