There is no denying the truth in the old adage that everyone’s journey is different.
Or, to put it in the parlance of the late Arnold Palmer, whose name is on the PGA Tour event at his beloved Bay Hill Club in Orlando, Florida, this week, swing your own swing.
The notion was brought into sharp focus last weekend as Chris Kirk, a 37-year-old recovering alcoholic, overcame a potentially costly mistake on the 72nd hole to win the Honda Classic, beating 34-year-old tour rookie Eric Cole, who looked like he has spent dozens of Sunday afternoons in the final pairing of a PGA Tour event though he had never been there.
What made the final round of the star-starved Honda Classic compelling wasn’t so much the golf being played as the men who were playing it.
There was Kirk, with his laconic golf swing and public acknowledgement of the personal challenges he faces, dueling Cole, whose mother, Laura Baugh, was one of the most famous faces in golf for years while his father, Bobby Cole, is a former tour winner.
With Cole, his relentless determination to reach the PGA Tour is a reminder that bloodlines can take a player only so far. Ten father-son combinations have won on the PGA Tour, and Cole came within a birdie on the 72nd hole of adding an 11th pair of names to the list. His parents got him started, and Cole took it from there.
Cole won $915,600 at the Honda Classic, more than doubling his career earnings in one gritty week, but the look on his face when it was over made it clear he wanted more than the big paycheck.
He’s been scratching and scraping for years, trying to build a career that would give him an opportunity like the one he had at PGA National. It’s the largely hidden work done over weeks and months and years by players who keep reaching for something they can’t quite grasp.
What stood out about Cole’s performance is how comfortable he looked. He didn’t win, but the moment wasn’t too big for him. That’s a victory in itself.
“If you would have given me a chance to win the tournament in a playoff on Wednesday night, I think I would have taken that, obviously. It’s overall a positive. There’s a lot that I can learn from it,” Cole said late Sunday.
“I had a lot of fun. I was proud of the way I played, and I can’t wait to get back in that position.”
Not everyone runs toward the light in those situations, but Cole did.
For Kirk, who hadn’t won on tour in more than seven years, he had to get through the darkness before he could enjoy the light again.
“I’m not going to lie to you. I came into this week at 47th in the world golf ranking, and that’s usually not something I care a whole lot about, but I have not played the Masters since 2016, I think, and growing up in Georgia, that kind of means everything to me.” – Chris Kirk
He stepped away from golf on the eve of his 34th birthday in 2019 to deal with depression and alcohol issues that were eating away at him. Kirk made his announcement on social media and admitted he needed help handling problems he couldn’t handle alone.
It was a courageous step, going public with such a private story, and when he returned, Kirk said the goal was to not let golf feel like a job any more.
Once ranked as high as No. 16 in the world, Kirk is having one of his best seasons. A pair of T3 finishes at the Sony Open in Hawaii and the American Express reconfirmed Kirk’s self-belief. On a difficult and dangerous Champion course at PGA National, he ground out a victory that almost slipped away on the 72nd hole when his second shot into the par-5 hit the rocks and wound up in the water, leading to a bogey.
Unshaken, Kirk won a few minutes later when he stuffed a wedge shot close on the same hole while Cole was unable to match his birdie.
When it was over, Kirk talked at length about his sobriety, and he also told a story about his personal motivation at the Honda Classic.
“I’m not going to lie to you. I came into this week at 47th in the world golf ranking, and that’s usually not something I care a whole lot about, but I have not played the Masters since 2016, I think, and growing up in Georgia, that kind of means everything to me,” Kirk said. “So I’ve been watching that world ranking closely, trying to stay in the top 50 (and earn a Masters invitation). To take care of it this week, that’s going to be something that’s incredibly special.
“Last time I played (Augusta), my two older sons, Sawyer and Foster, were maybe 2 – just turned 2 – and like 4 months old. Now to be able to go back, they’ll be 11 and 9. And then Wilder, my third son, will be 5. That Par 3 Contest can’t come soon enough. I’m really looking forward to that. The whole week, but just to be able to make those memories with my wife and my kids will be awesome.”
Had Kirk not made the decision he did nearly four years ago, Sunday might never have happened the way it did.
“I owe everything that I have in my entire life to my sobriety. I wouldn’t be doing this for a living anymore. I probably wouldn’t have the family that I have currently anymore. I came really close to losing everything that I cared about,” Kirk said.
Rather than champagne Sunday night, Kirk planned to celebrate with a few Diet Cokes with his buddy Sepp Straka, another Georgia graduate who won the Honda Classic last year and celebrated with soda.
One more example of how everyone’s journey is different.
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