A tree helped Chris Kirk to a tree-mendous victory

Chris Kirk, 2023 Honda Classic,Mandatory Credit: Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports
Chris Kirk, 2023 Honda Classic,Mandatory Credit: Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports /

Hitting behind a tree isn’t usually thought of as a winning strategy. But it sure worked out for Chris Kirk Sunday at the Honda Classic.

Kirk tied Eric Cole at 14-under after 72 holes at the Honda Classic played at the PGA National Champions Course in Palm Beach.

That necessitated a playoff on the 547 yard par 5 18th hole, which Kirk immediately appeared to foul up by pushing his drive 295 yards into the right rough. The ball stopped a few feet directly behind one of the course’s numerous palm trees, leaving Kirk no option other than to pitch a recovery shot back down the fairway.

Cole, a mid-30s Tour rookie seeking his long-awaited breakthrough victory, responded by blistering his own drive 300 yards into the dead center of the fairway. Not a tree in sight there. He was about 250 yards out and in virtually the same position from which he had played in regulation just a short time before.

Thanks to the tree, Kirk was in decidedly worse shape than during regulation, when he too had driven into the fairway. Except that time Kirk mis-hit his approach to the peninsular green, the ball caroming off the rock facing of the green area and shooting back into the lake on the right.

From there Chris Kirk had managed a dandy bogey that cost him his one-stroke lead. When Cole parred, the playoff was set.

Given playoff advantage by that tree, Cole tried to make full use of it. He laced his approach…too good, as it turned out. Cole’s ball flew into a back bunker leaving a long, difficult recovery to a downhill green rolling toward the water.

Laying two nearly 110 yards out but safe from any tree or other obstacle, Kirk saw his own chance at a momentum shift.  As befitting a 10-year veteran, he didn’t miss. His 60-degree wedge landed a foot from the pin and bit big-time, leaving a tap-in birdie.

That meant Cole had to get up and down from the challenging bunker layout, something he nearly did when he blasted out to 10 feet. His putt licked the cup before spinning heartlessly out.

Chris Kirk tapped in for the win.

By taking away from Kirk any option that involved playing the 18th hole aggressively, that palm tree in the right rough had ironically presented him with the victory. It was his third on Tour but his first since 2015.

If ever a tournament deserved to end in a tie, this one was it. Chris Kirk and Eric Cole each displayed countervailing strengths and weaknesses during the 72 holes, but they added up to exactly what the scoreboard showed…a deadlock.

Chris Kirk was decidedly better at the approach game that is considered critical at the Champions course, running up 6.313 Strokes Gained in that compartment for the week. That was eighth best in the field. Cole gained 4.285 strokes via his approaches, 16th best but two fewer than Kirk.

Kirk also gained a full stroke on Cole around the greens.

But Cole offset those shortcomings with sensational putting, gaining 8.422 strokes there. That was second best in the field; Kirk, for the record, was ninth. Cole was also better off the tee.

PGA Tour players are hitting new lows…in scoring. dark. Next

And when they added up the various Strokes Gained columns, Kirk and Cole tied for first place there, too, both at +14.85. Dead even on the scoreboard and in the stats.

The whole difference turned out to be that tree on 18. By forcing Kirk to downshift from go-for-it mode, that tree actually became a winning obstacle.

More proof that golf is a funny game.