Honda Classic: Chris Kirk was a win waiting to happen

Words by
Dan Davies
Honda Classic: Chris Kirk was a win waiting to happen

Some 2,836 days after his last tournament victory, Chris Kirk became a PGA Tour winner for the fifth time at the Honda Classic in Florida. In the time between lifting trophies, the Georgia native has battled well-documented issues on and off the course, challenges that contributed to him dropping outside the OWGR top 500 in June 2020. With his life now in much better shape, Kirk’s game and world ranking have been on sharp upward trajectories this season.

Using Clippd, we can see that Kirk’s impressive 14-under-par total around the notoriously tough PGA National course was not a major surprise. Chris Kirk was a win waiting to happen. Here’s why. 

1. He was playing well but had big opportunities to improve

Going into the Honda, the five most important areas in Chris Kirk’s game (see below) were all in good shape. These skills have the biggest impact on his scoring and in each, he was comfortably better than tour average. And nor was he trending down in any of them.

Crucially, Kirk had a high opportunity to improve (based on the levels he had been at in the past) in all but one of these key skills.

It was a bold move to take the week off at Riviera. It looks like Kirk used the week wisely to further fine tune a game that was already looking strong across the board. 

Strong numbers and consistency

2. His MC at Phoenix was a blip

In his last three outings before the Honda, Kirk had scored consecutive top-3 finishes before missing the cut at Phoenix. Before the Waste Management, he’d shot nine consecutive rounds in the 60s, starting with his second round in a missed cut at Sea Island. 

We have PGA Tour ShotLink Data for seven of those nine rounds (not including the first two at the American Express, where Kirk opened 69, 67 on the way to finishing third). His Average Shot Quality for this stretch of golf was 109, nine better than tour average.

He was playing very, very good golf; Phoenix was an off week.

If we give him a pass for Phoenix, Kirk's APP game has been firing in 2023.

3. His Approach game is ON!

If we ignore Phoenix, Kirk’s Average Shot Quality for Approach is 116 in the other three tournaments he’s played this year. Currently, he's among the very best in the game with an iron in his hands. 

As seen below, Kirk has significantly improved his iron play in all four categories since November. 

Improvements right across his APP game

4. He skipped Riviera to hone his Bermuda stroke

Kirk was the fourth University of Georgia alumni to win at the Honda in the last 10 years. Asked why, he pointed to the difficulty of putting on grainy Bermuda greens in the wind. ‘You'll see a lot of guys that grew up in the south and are familiar with playing in the south,’ he said, ‘ just like you see a lot of California guys win at Riv. It's just sort of what we're comfortable on.’

Kirk holed over 100 feet of putts on three of the four days (tour average is 73ft 4in). He putted the lights out in his second round 62, holing a shade over 128 feet for an Average Shot Quality of 113 on the day (a mark he also hit in his first round 65 in 2022). Kirk’s putter came to his rescue again on the final day when he holed more than 108 feet of putts. 

Kirk poured them in all week on the opening leg of the Florida Swing

5. Things sometimes happen for a reason

Kirk has good recent history at the Honda, finishing T7 and T25 in the last two years. His two recent top-3 finishes changed his mindset ‘from maybe I can still win out here to I definitely can still win out here’.

With a top-50 world ranking to protect and a place in the Masters, his home state major which he hadn't played in since 2016, there was plenty on the line for Kirk. The 37-year-old knew what it was like to play his best golf and come up shy. ‘That experience of it going both ways makes you realise there's only so much I can control here,’ he said afterwards. ‘I can't control the outcome of this tournament, I can just control what I'm doing on each shot, on each hole.’

On the last day he only hit two bad shots all day. Unfortunately, the worst, which scored a solitary 1 for Shot Quality, came on the final hole of regulation play. To return to the same hole in the playoff and nail an approach to 6 inches is further evidence of the fortitude that Chris Kirk has shown to get where he is today.

How Kirk mastered the Bear Trap