The FedEx Cup Playoffs, Part Three: Rory vs. Kirk
Then it was off to Norton, MA, and TPC Boston for the Deutsche Bank Championship. The course has a very secluded, pastoral feel, with quaint ponds and stone walls running throughout the course, and a collection of “chocolate drop mounds”—an odd duck among architectural features, and one that has fallen far out of fashion in modern course design. The earth-covered hillocks hearken back to a time when debris was cleared off early golf courses and shoveled into a pile, then covered with grass as an alternative to actually clearing it away. Later architects created artificial mounds to mimic this look, but it never became very popular, and it’s rare to find these man-made “chocolate drops” today.
With Ryder Cup captain’s picks set to be announced on Tuesday—the Deutsche Bank runs from Friday to Monday, ending on Labor Day—the Ryder Cup dominated the early week chatter. I saw Brendon Todd early that week at the Deutsche Bank, and I told him that I was in the process of writing an article about how he should be a captain’s pick because of his skill around the green. He thanked me, and I decided to take a risk.
“I think it’s going to have a huge influence on Tom Watson,” I said.
Most golfers would have already tuned me out, and the ones that didn’t would have heard that sentence and stared at me like I had three heads; self-deprecation isn’t a part of their world. Todd got the joke immediately, though—another reason to like him.
Most of the Ryder Cup drama centered on the Americans. Ryan Palmer shot an opening round 63 to shoot to the top of the leaderboard and throw his hat more fully into the ring. Keegan Bradley put up a 65, which looked it would solidify his spot, and Webb Simpson made a strong case with a 66.
Come Saturday, though, all three faded down the leaderboard, and were replaced by three other golfers who posted 66—Russell Henley, Billy Horschel, and Chris Kirk. This shift came as a big surprise for both Henley and Kirk—Henley could only shake his head and say, “it seems like the harder I try, the harder it is,” while Kirk had been so frustrated after his first round 73 that he told his caddie he wasn’t having any fun, and left the course without bothering to hit the range. Instead, he went to play putt-putt with his kids.
I followed Kirk and McIlroy on Sunday, and watched as the American made an important chip-in on the 17th hole to stem some of Rory’s typical late momentum, and nearly hole an eagle putt on the par-5 18th to end the day. He and Rory each finished with blistering 64s, and would be paired together again in the second-to-last group for Monday’s final round, two shots off the lead. Behind them, Russell Henley led the field at -12, and would play with Billy Horschel (-11), a hyperactive young Florida alum whose only career win came at the 2013 Zurich Classic, where he shot a final round 64 to win by a stroke.
For all three, a win would give them a great opportunity to snag one of Watson’s captain’s picks. Horschel made his case on Saturday night, saying that he could bring emotion and energy to a team that might be different than what they had among the nine automatic picks. He said he’d be “ecstatic” if Watson picked him. Henley was more measured, having come off a frustrating summer that let him feeling like he didn’t deserve a chance, but he allowed that it would be a “great thing” if he could win on Sunday and get a captain’s pick.
Chris Kirk, though, was in full stubborn mode, refusing to admit that it mattered to him at all.
“I would say I would love to make it, and love to have a good round here,” he said, “but no, if I deserved to make the team, then I’d already be on the team…I’m just really hoping that I’ll make the team on points next time…I just think that we’re not really as worried about it as you all wish we were. I’m not, anyway.”
It was hard to tell if he was being honest—and was therefore the only American golfer who wasn’t dying to play in the Ryder Cup—or if this was some variation on the stubbornness theme that Georgia coach Chris Haack had clued me into when we spoke. The only real insight I got from Kirk came at the tail end of our conversation, when I asked if it was annoying to be constantly asked about the Ryder Cup.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe it’d be a better story if I was like Keegan, and was freaking out about it and really, really excited and going nuts, but I’m just not.”
He gave me a little grin at that point, and finally, I thought, I understood—he wasn’t comfortable with the idea of having to campaign for himself. It fit right in with his personality—his stoic demeanor wouldn’t allow for false shows of enthusiasm. He barely even fist-pumped in competitive rounds, and he would never adopt the over-the-top showmanship of Keegan Bradley. Chris Haack endorsed this view when I spoke to him, saying that Kirk most likely found the idea of self-promotion unseemly, and made a choice to take the exact opposite approach—play golf, and trust that the results would speak for themselves. If Watson wanted to pick him, then great, but he wasn’t going to do backflips for him, since it wouldn’t matter anyway.
The unfortunate problem: Watson was looking for backflips. He wanted golfers who felt passionate about the Ryder Cup, and Kirk’s aloof posture couldn’t have gone over well with him. The two had played together in a practice round at the British Open, and when Kirk struggled on the front nine—he still had jet lag from his flight—Watson got on his back a little, and they won their match at the end. Whether Kirk appreciated the pep talk is more doubtful—he’s a self-motivator, and not the kind of person who searches for mentors. Even agreeing to play with Watson as a sort of audition probably rubbed him the wrong way, and the two hadn’t spoken since.
Making matters worse, Watson had an ego, and very much wanted players who would be excited to play for him. He saw himself as a general—tough but inspiring, harsh but well-loved—and to say he wanted a cult of worship would be too strong, but he did appreciate players like Bradley who would say the right things, and flatter his John Wayne-esque self-image. He wanted eager, loyal soldiers, and Kirk was a natural-born mercenary who adamantly refused to move even an inch toward Watson, much less to suck up or beg. The ring was extended, but Kirk wouldn’t kiss it.
That night, the personality clash could not have been more evident. Still, even though Kirk could be cold and stand-offish and probably didn’t think much of the media, I liked him, and I knew that he’d be excellent at the Ryder Cup—nor did I believe, for a second, that he was really so ambivalent about the event as he let on. I hoped that if he won on Monday, he’d overcome his stubborn streak and tell Watson what he wanted to hear. Wouldn’t it be worth it, for one day, in order to make the team?
On paper, playing with McIlroy for a second straight day seemed like a tall order for Kirk. His year had gone well enough after his win at the McGladrey, but his only other top tens came at the Sony Open and the Memorial, and now he was up against the no. 1 player in the world and the winner of the last two major championships. Unlike everyone else McIlroy had faced on Sundays that year, though, Kirk had the kind of personality that wouldn’t wither in the face of Rory’s ferocity and talent. In fact, it was the kind of challenge that was perfectly suited to Kirk’s rigid self-belief. He may not be able to promote himself in front of the cameras, but he wouldn’t crack just because the man across the tee box happened to be the best golfer on the planet. You could even see his refusal to budge in the way he answered questions about Rory on Saturday night:
Q. When you’re playing with Rory, you have to be on top of your game?
CHRIS KIRK: I try to play well every day. But I definitely enjoy playing with him. He’s a guy I’ve known for quite a while and been good friends with and he’s a very enjoyable guy to play with.
It was a brilliant approach, I thought. Rory didn’t impress him enough to change his game in any way, and not only was he not intimidated, but he was so up for it that he was going to have fun. Thinking back to Rory’s previous opponents, like Sergio and Rickie, it was clear to see that he’d face a different kind of challenge at the Deutsche Bank. He’d have to win by talent alone—Kirk wouldn’t fold. That still gave Rory the advantage, since he’s the most talented golfer in the world, but if he started slow, like at Valhalla, Kirk wouldn’t let him off the mat so easily.
There is very little glamor to Kirk’s personal life, past or present, and he doesn’t try to hide it—when asked what he had done between the third and fourth rounds, he told a tale of domestic headaches. For one, his two-year-old boy Sawyer was having temper tantrums, and then his wife had to get their 8-month-old son Foster to sleep. The next morning, his son acted up again when he had to pack up the toys in the toy bin for the upcoming travel—always the hardest part of every week. It gave him very little time to reflect on the upcoming duel with Rory McIlroy, which was probably a bonus, as less time to think meant less time to worry. Still, it was hard not to laugh at the contrast of his own personal life with Rory’s jet-setting, night club lifestyle.
Come Monday, Rory missed two birdie putts by mere inches on the first two holes, and Kirk had to rescue himself with an 8-foot par putt on the second after misjudging a wedge into the par-5 green. Kirk could feel the nerves moving through him, and he told me later that making the par putt might have been the most important shot of his round. Even the simple benefit of having a good feeling with his putter calmed him down, and filled him with a confidence that he was missing on the first tee.
On the par-3 third, he kept the momentum going with a 6-iron to five feet, setting up his first birdie of the day and putting him a shot up on Rory. Separately, they walked the long, wooded path between holes, and Kirk sipped water and had a muted conversation with his caddie about golf course design. “How do you see holes, standing in this shit?” he asked rhetorically, to which the caddie grunted a reply. The quiet looper was jut one of the rotating pool of caddies that Kirk keeps, refusing to stick with just one for any set length of time due to his “self-sufficiency” and, as he told Golf Week in November, not wanting to blame anyone but himself.
On the tee at the driveable par-4, Rory and Kirk chatted amiably, which was strange on both sides—Kirk isn’t talkative by nature, and Rory usually gives his playing partners the silent treatment, especially during the final round. Kirk took driver and came up short, and Rory hit 15 yards farther with his 3-wood, which showcased the difference in length between the two that would become a recurring them all day. While Rory made an easy birdie, Kirk had to land his pitch from off the green on the first cut to make sure it didn’t run by the hole, and he did well just to give himself eight feet for birdie. He holed it, and put the pressure on Rory, who sunk his own from inside five feet.
Rory made the first mistake of the round on the fifth hole when, after out-driving Kirk by 50 yards, he pushed his approach right and hit a weak chip to make bogey. He hit his drive on the sixth hole into a fairway bunker, and compounded the error by hitting his next shot straight into the lip. He was forced to chip sideways then, and did well to go up-and-down from 175 yards for another bogey, but he had dropped two shots, and he threw his ball in a nearby pond in frustration.
Kirk now trailed Henley by just a shot—another Georgia duel in the making—and Rory had fallen behind those two and Billy Horschel. He fought back with two birdies on seven and eight, but Kirk rescued himself with a terrific shot from a short-side bunker on eight, and an aggressive 7-iron on the ninth to the back left pin set him up for his third birdie of the day. By the time they hit the turn, Henley had dropped a shot, and Kirk was now tied for the lead with Horschel at -13.
The muggy heat intensified on the back nine, and Kirk gained a fan who wouldn’t stop yelling “Captain Kirk!” after each shot. Rory, who out-drove him on every hole and hit high, looping irons with that beautiful, liquid swing, looked like the better golfer—especially when you watched Kirk’s rigid, paint-by-numbers swing, and the blank, almost robotic look in his eyes. He still had the back nine left, and everyone knew that’s where he’d make his move. Still, nothing seemed to faze Kirk.
On the 10th, he hit a perfect chip to stave off a potential bogey, and reached the green on the long par-3 11th with a hybrid to set up a long two-putt. By the time he made par on no. 12, Rory had missed par putts of eight and three feet to start the back nine, and suddenly he had dropped to -9. Without a miracle, it seemed like he’d fallen out of contention. On 13, Kirk mishit his second shot—a “drop-kick,” where the club hits the ground in front of the ball, but bounces up before impact to turn a fat shot into a thin one—but got lucky when it carried the bunker and rolled onto the green anyway. From there, he stared down a 23-footer and sunk it for birdie to reach -14. He held the lead now, one ahead of Geoff Ogilvy, who had made six birdies on the day, and Billy Horschel, playing steady but unspectacular golf in the final group.
From there, Kirk had to pass a series of tests. He pushed his drive into the right rough on 14, but hit a beautiful approach from a thick lie to carry a cross bunker and reach the green. It was the riskiest shot he hit all day, and also his best—the solid contact kept him away from the sand, which would likely have meant bogey or worse.
By this point, Rory had grown frustrated with his round, and when his short approach on the 15th landed an unsatisfying 16 feet away, he threw his wedge at his bag. Meanwhile, Kirk, was like a metronome, hitting shot after shot like clockwork and showing very little emotion in the process. He holed another long putt for par on 15, and made a 13-footer for birdie on the par-3 16th after Rory nearly made a hole-in-one. On that putt, a memory from an earlier round came back to him, and he realized before he hit that the ball broke away from the water on the left of the hole, which allowed him to take the proper line.
He found the right rough on 17, and his ball landed in an old divot, but he dug it out to reach the green with an easy par, and came into the 18th with a one-shot lead on Horschel, who had birdied 15. On the par-5, Kirk nearly made a monumental error when his lay-up kicked off a ridge and came close to landing in a small pot bunker in the fairway—the only one for miles around—but it held up in the rough. He still faced a dicey shot, but he landed his short approach two feet onto the green and watched it tunnel toward the hole. He left himself 10 feet for birdie, and again he remembered was something strange about the putt. This time, his memory failed him—he thought the putt broke less than it looked, and so he aimed almost straight, but in fact it broke more, and his birdie attempt swung well wide of the hole.
He made par for a bogey-free 66 and headed for the scoring tent, where his wife met him with his sons. “I have to go talk to the man, okay?” he told Sawyer in a gentle voice when the tv cameras beckoned, and the boy cried as he was passed back to his mother. In the hallway outside the scoring room, Rory McIlroy saw his assistant Sean O’Flaherty—a few sprigs of chest hair popping through the neck of the plaid shirt that matched his pastel pants, sunglasses hung backward around his neck, hair caked with gel—and grinned. “Fuckkkk,” he said, letting the word hang in the air. “So bad.”
Out on the 18th hole, still trailing by a shot, Billy Horschel bombed his drive 318 yards down the right side of the fairway. From there, he watched Kirk miss his birdie putt, and turned to his caddie Micah Fuggitt.
“I’m going to hit this on the green, I’m going to make eagle, and we’re going to win the tournament,” he said.
He took dead aim with his 6-iron from 211 yards away. Deep down, he understood that this shot gave him not only a chance to win the tournament, but to make the Ryder Cup team—unlike Kirk, he had exactly the kind of energy that Watson coveted. The ball was below his feet, but on an uphill lie relative to the hole, and before he hit, Horschel reminded himself “stay in the golf shot”—not to rise too soon and risk sending it right.
It was a sound piece of strategy, but as it turned out, he overcompensated, and caught the ball very fat. It rose up in the air, and Horschel immediately knew it was his worst shot of the day—a total chunk. When it came down, it landed in the thick native area guarding the front of the green, from which no recovery was possible. He took the penalty drop, made bogey, and finished in a three-way tie for second.
Horschel had always struggled with his anger, and after conquering his emotions for most of 2013, they had started to creep up and get the better of him in the past few months. I’d watched him kick a trash can with fury in Greensboro, and when he came into the scoring room after his chunked 6-iron, and heard from Tom Alter that he had dropped in the FedEx Cup standings because of the bogey, he let out an anguished scream and punched his own hand. Horschel’s rage is the kind that looks very frightening up close, and Alter briefly wondered if he might hurt himself by punching a wall.
He didn’t—he collected himself in time to talk to reporters, and all he could say was that he hit the ball well all day, that he believed in himself standing over the 6-iron, and that hopefully he could get a win next week.
Which left Chris Kirk, and the possibility of that captain’s pick. Would he advocate for himself, now that he’d won?
No chance. Doug Ferguson and I did our best to probe beyond the stubborn silence, but he just reiterated that the event didn’t mean as much to him as the other players.
“I’m not going to really base how happy I am with how I’m playing or how my year has gone on whether I make the team or not,” he said. “Obviously I would love to do it. I would love to maybe be making a bigger deal out of it than I am, but that’s just honestly how I feel.”
Ferguson gave it one last shot, hoping against hope that he might get some indication that it mattered to Kirk.
Q. You talked outside and you spoke well about not being entitled and if it happens, great. And if it’s not, look what you’ve done this week which is great in itself. Is there any part of you that’s a little bit antsy about a phone ringing with news one way or the other?
CHRIS KIRK: No.
Q. If not, can you make something up for us?
CHRIS KIRK: Like I said, I wish that I was a little bit more excited or freaking out about it, but, you know, I mean I don’t really know what else to say. I’d love to do it, but, I don’t know, I’m not worried. It’s not like there’s anything that I can do to sway it one way or another. I can’t say, hey, Tom, please, please pick me now. I don’t think that’s going to change his mind a whole lot. I think he’s probably got a pretty good idea of what he wants to do regardless of what I want to do.
And so, with a potential chance to talk his way onto the team, golf’s most stubborn player stuck to his guns, and left the course without compromise. Back at home, two-year-old Sawyer realized his dad had won, and though the concept was still abstract to him, he could pick up on the excitement. And when he got excited, that meant Foster would too, and soon both boys were wired. Kirk had to fly to Denver the next morning, and it would be a long time before he could get his sons to sleep that night. If you had seen him at that moment—this slim, slightly nerdy figure struggling to wrangle two young boys—you’d never guess that he’d just spent two days playing alongside the best golfer in the world. And it wouldn’t have crossed your mind, in a million years, that he actually won.
(Excerpted from the original manuscript of Slaying the Tiger.)