Paying Attention to Heartbeats

Chris Kirk is the latest newly-minted PGA Tour winner. While all the big stars were over in England leaning in to the worst summer weather the North Sea could visit upon Royal St. George’s, the remainder of the Tour was dodging thunderstorms and sweltering in the heat in Madison, Mississippi.

They were there for the Viking Classic played at the Annandale Golf Club and Kirk ended up winning by one over Tom Pernice, Jr. and George McNeill. Pernice is the Tour veteran who has been double-dipping on the Champions Tour since he won his debut in 2009 and McNeill won the 2006 Q-School and won his first year out in Las Vegas. So not chopped liver by any stretch of the imagination: just because you didn’t get to the Dover coast doesn’t mean you can’t play.

Kirk didn’t enjoy that same blaze of glory. He graduated from the University of Georgia in 2007 as winner of the Ben Hogan Award as the outstanding collegiate golfer of the year (Rickie Fowler won it the following year). He was granted a couple of sponsor’s exemptions as soon as the Walker Cup was over and then won a Nationwide Tour card at Q-School that December. And then he pretty much got beat up in golf’s best incubator for the next two years. He finally blossomed in 2010 and won his promotion to the PGA Tour for this year.

And it has been a great rookie year. Among his highlights, he managed a T7 at the Hope ($151,600), a T2 in Houston ($519,200), a T8 at Aronimink ($179,800) and now this win at the Viking ($648,000). And ironically, one of those sponsor’s exemptions he received back in 2007 was from the Viking Classic.

I go into all of this detail because of this comment after his victory:

It’s pretty amazing to think back to then, how far I’ve come from then. You know, I don’t think…it wasn’t necessarily my game is that much better than it was then, but just the comfort level that I have now to be able to go down 18 today and feel 100% comfortable in my own skin out there.

You know, sure, I was a little bit nervous, but a lot more confident than I was nervous.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could all just get our greatness when everybody else sees it instead of having to go through grueling experiences proving it to ourselves? As I said, the Nationwide Tour is golf’s best incubator.

In the media room they were teasing him about his understated celebration (1:15 pgatour.com video) when he tapped in a 3-incher for the win. But what came out of that was some pretty masterful insights:

I definitely don’t show much emotion on the golf course, that’s for sure. When I was younger, I did a little bit more, and I found that every time I would make a birdie and fist pump or something like that, it would my heart rate would get going a little bit too much, and I would tend to hit a bad shot or make a bogey on the next hole.

So it’s one thing that I’m actually very, very conscious of, especially in situations when I am in contention, controlling my heart rate. I have a naturally very slow heart rate, and so if it gets up a little bit too much, it makes it tough for me. So I don’t show much emotion, and I do a lot of breathing exercises and that type of thing just to maintain a consistent heart rate so that I can perform on Sunday just as well as I do any other time.

And then they teased him about his sleepy fist pump a little bit more:

I gave a little bit of a fist pump, I think, didn’t I? I don’t know. I made a three inch putt to win. That’s not exactly an accomplishment. All the other shots I hit were pretty good.

I’ve always thought it was kind of silly, to be honest with you, when a guy taps in from three or four inches away and lets out a huge fist pump. I know it’s more…it’s about a lot more than just that putt, but I just kind of figure I mean, I could have called in somebody from the crowd, and one of you guys could have made that putt for me.

But then they grew serious about whether this was a medical situation or just a naturally slow heart rate:

No, nothing irregular or abnormal…I think it’s good. It helps me stay a little bit more on an even keel. I don’t get too amped up or too excited.

I don’t have to worry about [adjusting] my yardages. I know a lot of guys, when they get in contention, they get a little too much adrenaline going, and they have to change their club selection a little bit based on how pumped up they are. So thankfully, I’m able to play just the same coming down the stretch as I do normally except for I tend to have a little bit more focus.

I feel like the more nervous I get, the more heightened the situation is, I feel like I can play better in those situations.

Because Kirk is so attuned to his body and what he knows its reactions will be under stress, not only can he manage that in the heat of battle, but he can also train himself with breathing exercises.

In the universe of golfers, I thought that was a pretty unique level of awareness.

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