Former Georgia star Kirk on cusp of Masters debut
by John Bednarowski
sportseditor@mdjonline.com
April 08, 2014 04:01 AM | 1915 views | 0 0 comments | 11 11 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Chris Kirk has played Augusta National Golf Club before, but that was only practice, on a visit with the Georgia golf team. This week, the he will get the chance to play amongst the famed course with the attraction of contending for the Masters and a green jacket, one of sports’ greatest prizes.
<br>Associated Press photo
Chris Kirk has played Augusta National Golf Club before, but that was only practice, on a visit with the Georgia golf team. This week, the he will get the chance to play amongst the famed course with the attraction of contending for the Masters and a green jacket, one of sports’ greatest prizes.
Associated Press photo
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Chris Kirk has had a standout career on every level since graduating from Woodstock’s Etowah High School a decade ago.

In college, he helped Georgia win a national championship, and he won the Ben Hogan Award as the best college golfer in the country.

Once he turned pro, Kirk won twice on the Web.com Tour, and since graduating to the PGA Tour, the success hasn’t stopped coming. This past fall, he won the McGladrey Classic on St. Simons Island.

The victory, Kirk’s second on the PGA Tour, was special in many ways.

First, it came in a tournament hosted by his longtime mentor, Davis Love III. Second, with Kirk having owned a home in the St. Simons area for more than six years, he was able to play in front of his family and friends.

And while Kirk said those were the best parts of winning the McGladrey, there was one added benefit that was nearly as good.

He earned his first trip to the Masters.

Growing up in Georgia, Kirk said it was always one of his goals to qualify for the tournament and get a chance to drive down Magnolia Lane, the tree-lined players’ entrance into Augusta National Golf Club.

“In my mind, there’s the Masters,” Kirk said, “and then every other tournament.”

The 28-year-old Kirk will get his first chance at winning a green jacket this week, with the season’s first major starting Thursday. And while no player has won the Masters in his first attempt since Fuzzy Zoeller did it in 1979, there’s the feeling that if a player is going to win on his first try, this may be the year to do it.

Of the 97 players in the field this week, 24 are making their Masters debuts, the greatest number since 1935 — the tournament’s second year. Of those first-time qualifiers, five — Kirk, Jimmy Walker, Patrick Reed, Harris English and Matt Every — are in the top 10 of the FedEx Cup standings.

Kirk is in the midst of his best season as a pro. He has already won more than $2 million in earnings, ranks sixth on the FedEx Cup list, eighth in the current Ryder Cup point standings and No. 53 in the world.

“I feel like I’ve started to play more consistently,” Kirk said. “It’s been some minor adjustments. My driving has been more consistent, and I’ve tried to improve on the little things.

“And the more success you have, the more comfortable you get out here (on tour).”

Getting the consistency he wanted, Kirk comes into the season’s first major championship with a streak of 14 consecutive cuts made, and he may have gotten on his current career path while still in college.

It stemmed from a tournament Kirk didn’t play in.

“When he first got to college, he had a difficult time learning,” Georgia coach Chris Haack said. “He had a hardheadedness where he would not take what the golf course would give him.

“He would be playing well and then have one or two bad holes because he would try to force things. He did that three or four times in a row, so we decided to take him to a tournament where he had to sit and watch. It was a learning experience. From then on, he played well.”

One place Kirk played well while in college was the back nine at Augusta National.

Each year, early in the spring as officials at Augusta started preparing for the tournament, the Georgia golf team would have the opportunity to play the course. Haack said the course would typically play longer than it did during the tournament week, but the greens still presented their usual challenge to the players.

One year, Kirk went out and shot 30 on the back nine.

Haack said Kirk’s putting stroke, then and now, is what will give him a great opportunity to succeed this week.

“What great speed he putts with,” Haack said. “Not much has changed since his college days. When I’m trying to show (his current team) what I am talking about, I show video of (Kirk) putting. He just has a comfort level on the greens.”

Haack isn’t the only person who thinks Kirk can play well in his Masters debut.

“I think the golf course fits my game really well,” Kirk said. “I hit a draw. I have a creative short game and I love fast greens.”

But can he win?

Kirk didn’t say one way or another, but he did say there is still a lot he has to learn about the golf course.

Haack said he feels like Kirk had just as good a chance as any player there.

“The Masters is the biggest thing for any player that grows up in Georgia, and this is huge for him,” Haack said. “But nothing would surprise me. I think, any time a guy can win twice on the PGA Tour, he’s got a chance.”
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