By Sal Johnson
Return to the winner’s circle for Kirk
So many thought that with a field lacking star names, the action would be boring at the Honda Classic. It wasn’t the case at all in which we had several good storylines. The first was Chris Kirk, who has been working hard for the last five years, overcoming an alcohol problem and returning to the winner’s circle. After a stellar start to his PGA Tour career, winning four times in five years, he was looking for his first victory in 2,835 days. It was just a few months short of 8 years since he won the 2015 Charles Schwab Challenge at Colonial. He had played in 79 PGA Tour events since his win at Colonial.
He was fighting down the stretch with a 34-year-old journeyman pro, Eric Cole, whose parents Bobby Cole and Laura Baugh were professional golfers who played on the PGA and LPGA Tours. Farther Bobby had won the 1977 Buick Open and played in 390 PGA Tour events. His mother, Laura Baugh, was the dream girl of the LPGA, who joined the LPGA in 1973 after a very successful amateur career, despite playing in 458 events, including ten runner-up finishes.
The event went down to the final hole in which Kirk just about gave the tournament to Cole when Kirk hit his second shot in the water at 18, which led to a bogey. Cole, who was just off the par 5, 18th hole in two, couldn’t get up and down from off the green and went into a playoff. Kirk hit his second poor shot in a two-hole stretch when he drove behind a tree. After laying up, Cole, after a perfect drive, hit a second shot with too much adrenaline over the green into a greenside bunker. From 109 yards out, Kirk hit a perfect wedge that stopped 16 inches from the hole for a kick-in birdie. Kirk was the winner when Cole couldn’t get it up and down.
For the week, Kirk took command with a second-round 62 and played close to flawless golf after that. Over the weekend, he showed that exceptional pedigree of a past champion of never getting in trouble. When Kirk made two bogeys on Saturday at 13 and 16, he bounced back with birdies at 17 and 18. On Sunday, when he made a bogey at 2, he came back with a birdie at 3. During the back nine on a challenging course with danger at every turn, Kirk did what he needed to do, hitting six of the final nine greens in regulation and never showing any stress until 18. Kirk hit his second shot into the lake beside the green, but the shot was inches away from perfection, hitting the top of the wall guarding the green and bouncing into the water. He then showed a calmness of not making any more errors, getting his fourth shot on the green and just missing an 18-footer that would have given him victory. In the playoff, he showed that special reserve to hit his third shot within inches to beat Cole.
Kirk has spent the last four years in PGA Tour limbo after taking an indefinite leave from Golf in May 2019 to deal with alcohol abuse and depression. He returned to the PGA Tour in November at the Mayakoba Golf Classic but struggled the whole 2020 season, a combination of lack of play and the PGA Tour shutting down due to Covid-19. He did win the King & Bear Classic on the Korn Ferry Tour when the PGA Tour opened up golf in June of 2020. Kirk returned to the PGA Tour on a major medical extension, but in 16 events, he only had two top-25 finishes, the best being a T-18th at the RSM Classic. On the verge of losing his PGA Tour card, he entered the 2021 Sony Open in Hawaii and had to finish at the worst T-3rd to retain his PGA Tour card. Kirk had one of his best weeks, shooting four rounds of 65 to finish T-2nd just a shot back of winner Kevin Na. Kirk finished up 2021 with a total of nine top-25 finishes and was 62nd on the FedExCup points list. Since then, Kirk has regained most of his game, But that elusive return to the victory circle came close numerous times. Last month Kirk came close with third-place finishes at the Sony Open and the American Express in Palm Springs the following week. In both events, he was beaten by a player who had great final rounds. Si Woo Kim shot 64 in Hawaii to beat Kirk by three shots. The following week at the Amex, Kirk shot 63-64 over the weekend but was two back of Jon Rahm, who had a good size lead going into Sunday, shooting 68 to pull out the victory.
Alcoholism around the world has been a problem for centuries. Today, more than 86 percent of U.S. adults over the age of 18 reports that they have drunk alcohol at some point. 70 percent said they had a drink in the last year, and 56 percent had a drink in the previous month. It’s reported that about 15 million in America struggle with alcoholism. We have not seen many cases of the problem on the PGA Tour. It’s a personal problem that only a few have come out on their issues. The most significant player to admit the problem is Tom Watson, who struggled for years. Former player and TV announcer David Ferity told his stories of working with the problem. Also, Rocco Mediate and Grayson Murray talked about their issues. But the player that has spoken the most about his difficulties has to be Kirk, who has been very open about his battle with alcohol. So in a way, his win is very poignant with people as he could be the first recovering alcoholic to win on the PGA Tour.
The importance of Kirk winning means a new player who we can watch in his prime on the PGA Tour. In 2014, Kirk won twice at the RSM Classic and the Deutsche Bank Championship and was 2nd in the FedExCup standings. Between his first year on the PGA Tour and 2018, Kirk won just over $17 million and was in the top-ten 29 times in 213 starts. The 37-year-old has played well on courses that demand accuracy off the tee and good iron play. That is probably why he has played well at the Sony Open in Hawaii, Honda Classic, Arnold Palmer, Valero Texas Open, and Charles Schwab Challenge. What is strange is that Kirk has been terrible in the majors. In 20 starts, he only has two top-25 finishes, a T-5th in last year’s PGA Championship and a T-19th at the 2014 British Open. The one aspect of his game that was good in 2013 and ’14 that fell by the wayside was putting. In 2013 he was 17th in Strokes Gained Putting but has steadily gone downward. In 2019 he hit rock bottom, ranked 180th. Last year Kirk was 116th but has improved to 37th this year. In looking for keys to his victory at the Honda, he was 5th in Strokes Gained Tee-to-Green and 9th in Strokes Gained Putting. Kirk was T-7th hitting 54 of 72 greens, but he was 4th in Proximity to Hole. But for many, they feel not playing last week was key. Kirk had to make a sensible decision in which he could only play in one event and decided to forgo the Genesis Invitational, with a big purse, and play in the Honda on a course he had a lot of success on.
Finally, Eric Cole hitting the main stage.
As for Eric Cole, it’s been years of struggle and hard work before he finally found himself on the main stage on the PGA Tour. He was born to a pair of professional golfers that also had their moment of stardom in Golf. His mother Laura was the dream girl of golf as a teenager. She had an impeccable résumé of amateur victories when she turned pro in 1973. In her rookie year, she was the most recognizable figure on the LPGA Tour, with dozens of TV commercials, including with Arnold Palmer. But Baugh was never able to win, finishing runner-up ten times and then falling into alcoholism. His father, Bobby, also fought his demons. He was a very talented player from South Africa who like his wife Laura, could never reach the next level. Bobby and Laura were married, divorced, and remarried, and Laura had seven kids. At an early age, she saw that Eric had the unique talent to be a great player someday. She encouraged Eric and helped him learn the game, and when she remarried, a lawyer who had a membership and allowed Eric to play at Bay Hill, where he won the club championship. Cole went to Nova Southeastern University but had some hard times when he dropped 100 pounds. He was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes and Addison’s disease. In 2008 he left school and turned professional in 2009, joining the minor league Golf Tour in southern Florida. He won 56 times on that tour and made it to the Korn Ferry Tour in 2017. He didn’t play well and lost that card, regaining it for 2020. In 2022 he finished five times in the top 10 and got his PGA Tour card with stellar play in the Korn Ferry Finals, earning him a 7th place finish on the Eligibility points list.
Since joining the PGA Tour, he has struggled. He missed the cut in his first four starts, and in his subsequent seven events, his best finish was T-15th at the AT&T Pebble Beach. In 144 events before the Honda, he only had $363,880 before earning $915,600 with his runner-up finish. For many, we have to ask ourselves the biggest question: Is his finish at the Honda the start of something big? The only way to answer that is to see other notable journeymen who have finished 2nd on tour in 2023. Since finishing runner-up, we haven’t heard much of Matthew NeSmith, Tyson Alexander, Callum Tarren, Hayden Buckley, and Davis Thompson this year.
An astonishing first go-around for young pro
Ryan Gerard is not a household name in golf. He graduated from the University of North Carolina last June and turned professional. He played in eight PGA Tour Canada events, making seven cuts. He had one victory at the Quebec Open and two other top-five outings. He was qualified for the season-ending Fortinet Cup Championship, beginning the week 5th in the Fortinet Cup standings. He maintained that position at the season’s end to earn conditional 2023 Korn Ferry Tour membership. After missing the cut in his first events in the Bahamas, he was T-41st at the Panama Championship and T-3rd at the Astara Golf Championship in Columbia.
With the week off, he decided to get into the Monday Qualifier for the Honda and won one of the four spots. Now betting-wise, Gerard could have been bought cheaply for $6,200 on DraftKings. Ryan opened up with 69, but when he shot a second-round 63 was in the running in third place. He shot 71 on Saturday to drop down to a T-8th, but on Sunday got hot with an eagle at 3 and a birdie at 4. When he made birdie at 16, he found himself in rarified air just three back. Unfortunately, he found the water on his second shot on 18, which led to a bogey and a 4th-place finish. With the finish, Gerard earned $411,600 in just his second PGA Tour start and first one as a professional (he missed the cut as an amateur at the 2022 U.S. Open).
In the history of the PGA Tour, how does making $411,600 rank among those first-time checks earned on the PGA Tour?
Russell Henley has the best. His first PGA Tour check was $1,008,00 when he won the 2013 Sony Open, a feat that may not, a feat that had happened just once when Jim Benepe won the 1988 BMW Championship in his first start. After Henley, the next best first check was Cameron Young, who won $623,000 while runner-up in last year’s Sanderson Farms Championship. After that, Guido Migliozzi won $498,176 at the 2021 U.S. Open, and Chris Wood won $415,142 at the 2009 British Open.
As a consolation for Gerard’s excellent finish, who was planning to try to qualify for Puerto Rico on Monday, he now has a tee time for Thursday. But proving somewhat unfortunate was Gerard hitting into the water at the 72nd hole. With the fourth-place finish, Gerard earned 135 non-member FedExCup points. If Gerard could have made a birdie on his final hole, he would have tied for 3rd with Tyler Duncan, he would have earned 162.5 points. The importance of this is getting special temporary membership for the PGA Tour, thus getting unlimited sponsor exemptions for the rest of the season. The mark for this season is 175.2 points, so that would have meant that Gerard would have been just 13 points short, which he could have gotten with a 40th or better finish at Puerto Rico. Now Gerard has to finish with a three-way T-9th or better in Puerto Rico. Also, it’s not out of the realm for Gerard to earn another spot on the PGA Tour for the rest of the season. Notwithstanding, I have a funny feeling that Gerard will be able to find his way to a PGA Tour membership in 2024.
Who’s hot, and who to watch in the next few weeks in Florida.
After finishing T-31st at Farmers Insurance, Taylor Montgomery was the hottest rookie on the PGA Tour. He had made ten cuts in his first ten starts and was 8th on the FedExCup points list. But just like that, Taylor has struggled to miss the cut at Phoenix with rounds of 75-71 and Genesis with rounds of 73-71. For Montgomery, he will be playing at the Palmer, his first PGA Tour start in Florida. Now for Montgomery, he has played in seven Korn Ferry events in Florida with good results, including a 3rd place finish at the 2020 Lecom Suncoast and a T-2nd at the 2021 Suncoast.
One big disappointment was Thomas Detry withdrawing after a first-round 76 at the Honda Detry had been one of the stars in DraftKings points, making his last 12 PGA Tour cuts, including 2nd at Bermuda. We don’t know if this is a sign of him cooling down or an inability to play in Florida. So beware of choosing Detry for this week, as he may not be any good.
Also, a warning on Sahith THeegala, who was T-2nd at the RSM Classic, T-4th at the Farmers, and T-6th at the Genesis. Last year he was good on the west coast swing, including a T-3rd at Phoenix, but struggled a bit on going to Florida, missing the cut at the Palmer and Players. He bounced back and finished T-7th at the Valspar, but I would be cautious and not choose him at the Palmer.
Another player to worry about is Hayden Buckle, who was 2nd at the Sony Open. Since he has struggled, he only made one cut with a T-29th finish at Phoenix. Last year Buckley also played well in the first 15 weeks of the season, but on hitting Florida hit the skids missing the cut at the Honda and Valspar. He was T-68th at the Palmer and T-66th at the Players, but I am afraid of picking him in Florida after missing the cut in last week’s Honda.
Also, buyer beware of Tom Hoge, who has played well the last two years on the west coast swing and struggled in Florida. In 17 career Florida starts on the PGA Tour, Hoge has made eight cuts with a best-place finish of T-15th at the 2020 Palmer. So here is another player to forget for the next month or so.