Chris Kirk: “I’m not really a big goals guy, just process”

Early in the final-round broadcast of the Deutsche Bank Championship, the NBC announce crew was observing the way that eventual winner, Chris Kirk, carried himself. They were struck by the way that Kirk sort of glides around the course in that same sort of unperturbed way that Aussie, Geoff Ogilvy does. I immediately agreed that they had a point.

After he signed his card, Kirk was being interviewed by the Golf Channel’s Steve Sands and he wanted to know if he was as calm on the inside as he seemed to be on the outside. His answer is probably the best reason that so many of the Tour players play the game in that sort of stoic, detached-from-the-world way. They’re trying to cover up this:

“No. You know, in that kind of situation it’s unbelievable, just trying to control the feelings going through your body, trying to factor in how much further you’re hitting all your irons just because you’re too pumped up. I may be a little bit more calm than some other guys in that situation, but I’m pretty much still freaked out inside.”

Later in the media center, he was asked if his expectations had changed any now that he had this huge win under his belt and gone to the top of the FedExCup standings? Had his goals changed any? 

“My expectations haven’t really changed a whole lot. I’m not a really big goals guy, just process. Try to do as well as I can every day.”

“But this is incredibly unexpected for me, to be honest with you. I’ve had a great year, but I really haven’t played my best golf over the last month or so, and struggling with my iron game a little bit. I think like last week I hit about eight greens in regulation every day at the Barclays, and struggled again the first round here, shot 2-over.”

“And to be honest with you, this is going to sound ridiculous now, but usually I would have gone — after playing a poor round, I would have gone to hit some balls and worked on something. But I just told my caddie, I said this isn’t any fun. This is no fun, I don’t feel like going to hit balls, I’ll see you tomorrow. Shows you how ridiculous this game is to come out [after that] and play three rounds, 66, 64, 66 to win, is beyond belief.”

Of course the other elephant in the room is that he put himself right into the limelight of Tom Watson’s three Ryder Cup Captain’s picks. He had already tucked himself right behind No.13, Keegan Bradley, so it wasn’t such a far reach. He may have come out of nowhere in most fans’ minds, but he had done the work to be considered. He just wasn’t in the limelight. But with this win, he now was. Did he think that he’d done enough?

“I certainly don’t feel entitled or feel like I’m a shoe-in to get a pick. I’ve obviously really put myself into consideration and it’s something that I would love to do. But like I’ve said before, I mean the nine guys that made it are automatic picks, those are the guys on the team. The other three, if you get in, it’s a bonus.”

And then with some self-effacing modesty (rather than indifference to make the team) he added:

“Yeah, winning the Deutsche Bank and going No. 1 in FedExCup, and $1.4 million, that’s plenty for me for one day.”

Some may still take his low-key position on making the team as indifference. And maybe it was when he didn’t thing he had a ghost of a chance of making the team and he was stacking up his psychological protections. But after his good friend, Keegan Bradley, got a hold of him, it’s not that way for Kirk anymore.

“I probably don’t put as much importance on it as a lot of guys do, maybe. And maybe that’s — Keegan Bradley is a good friend of mine and I’ve talked to him about this a good bit. And he said wait until you play on one, and you’ll feel different about it.”

And perhaps what appears as psychological protections is really someone who understands that true happiness emanates from within. It is a way of being that you chose and is not dependent on accomplishments, honors or accolades:

“Obviously I see it as a huge honor to play on that team. And I would absolutely love to do it, but 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. 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.”

The first round of the tournament didn’t start very well for him. He managed two birdies, but they were offset by two bogeys and a double. He managed to turn things around in the second round with a tidy 66. Buoyed by that he had an incredible side-by-side romp with Rory McIlroy in the third round. They both shot clean-card 64s. That was the point where he thought he might have a chance to win it:

“Probably not until after I finished my round yesterday, you know, I wasn’t paying attention to the leaderboards today or yesterday.”

“Yesterday Rory and I were both just in such a zone, both shooting 7-under, with no bogeys. And it was pretty easy just to get lost in what we were doing, which is an amazing place to be.”

“So obviously I saw at the end of the day yesterday that I was only two back. So I knew I had a chance and played a good, solid round today. I kind of thought that I would maybe need one or two more but thankfully was able to pull it off.”

So how does he explain playing mediocre in the Barclays and the first round this week and then having this sudden, dramatic turnaround?

“I wish I could explain it. I wish I knew what I did different and I would choose to play like I did the last three days all the time. But maybe just tried to simplify my thoughts little bit.”

“The work that I’ve done over the last year with my teacher, Scott Hamilton, has really elevated my ball-striking to give me a chance to win tournaments like this. I’ve driven the ball unbelievable the last year compared to how I did before. He’s absolutely helped me a ton.”

“And we talked a lot earlier this week about just trying to make it a little bit more simple. Maybe been working on it a little bit too much. So that definitely, definitely helped me, some of his words of wisdom, a little more point-and-shoot type of golf.”

Or stated another way, playing to targets instead of playing to swing positions.

That same “playing to targets” was demonstrated in another way with his third shot into the 18th hole after a well-rationalized layup:

“I thought I hit a pretty good layup shot. A little bit of bad bounce and thankfully had a pretty good downgrain lie in that rough next to the bunker.”

“But there was a lot of calculating going on as far as how hard to hit that one. I had 90 yards to the front and 104 yards to the hole. I hit a lob wedge about 97 or 8 yards. By the time that I calculated in coming out of the rough a little bit and a little bit downwind and a little bit of adrenaline, 104 yard shot turned into 80 yards in my mind. That was where I ended up adding it all up to.”

The other good thing here was that he didn’t allow himself to get rattled by rushing. He took his time:

“Probably I took a little extra time there and had a drink of water and did a little math to try to figure out how hard to hit that one and thankfully ended up just right.”

So Kirk says that he’s not really a goals guy, but rather a process guy. That’s not just true for the shot-by-shot progression of a tournament round. It’s also true for how he sees the development of his career;

“I’m still just in such shock that I actually won this tournament. It’s going to take me a little while to figure that out.”

“Obviously golf is a game where once you accomplish something you want to go to the next level, go to the next level, go to the next level. So this is definitely the biggest win of my career against the strongest field under the biggest spotlight. So I’m very proud of that and I’m very excited that I was able to accomplish this.”

“And so now I’ll just keep plugging away and work really hard and try to take another step up.”

One of the big steps up he took was playing the last 36 holes with World No. 1, Rory McIlroy. Anybody’s first thought could easily be how intimidating that might be. But Kirk didn’t experience it that way. As they say, it was all good:

“I think it probably helped me play better. Being in the group with him and watching him play so great yesterday and he was a little bit up and down today, but still hit some great runs and some great shots. And just the huge crowds that go along with that, it’s really just kind of heightens your focus a little bit.”

“And that’s something that I do struggle with every now and then, really getting myself into it and getting focused, playing how many tournaments we play every year, every single shot, it’s hard to get to that extreme level of focus where you don’t even see anything around you or hear anything. And it was a lot easier to get into that zone, I guess, we would call it, the last few days.”

And finally this last answer may seem that it’s off topic as to mastery, but it’s not. It is at first, a slice-of-life look at how a Tour pro spends his off-course time when he’s on the road with this wife and two young kids. We don’t get to hear about that in this kind of detail very often. And when we do, we assume that it’s a distraction from the business at hand. But in Kirk’s case, it was a loving and constructive distraction; you have to turn it all off sometimes:

“Yesterday I went and picked my kids up from daycare. And then went and got a little bite of — picked up some dinner to-go and tried to control my two year old’s temper tantrums that he has every now and then.”

“And I hung out with him a little, gave him a bath and got him to bed. My wife got our 8 month old to bed. It was a pretty normal night for us.”

“And then this morning was the tragedy of every week of having to pack up the toy bin to put on the [PGA Tour] trailer to go on to the next tournament. Sawyer is never too happy about that. But just sort of getting ourselves together.”

“We’ll stay here tonight actually and my family will head home tomorrow and I’ll head to Denver tomorrow. Having them out with me on the road, especially when you’re in a situation like I was in, when you know you have a chance to win, you can very easily spend way too much time thinking about it. I don’t even have a chance to do that because with having my wife and two kids with me, they definitely keep me busy and we absolutely have had a blast this week and playing with them.”

“So it definitely helps a lot to sort of — once I leave the golf course, the golf course is gone until I get back there the next day.”

After watching Kirk play these last 36 holes in such an even-keeled way and after delving into the sinew of his interview, I’ll be very interested to see if Tom Watson is as impressed by him as I was. The Golf Channel has the selection show tomorrow at 6pm ET.

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