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Kirk Goes from the Ridiculous to the Sublime
Chris Kirk and Billy Horschel. Those were not the names people expected to see atop the leaderboard when Monday's final round of the Deutsche Bank Championship was completed at TPC Boston.
Come to think of it, Geoff Ogilvy wasn't on anyone's radar heading into the weekend, either. Ogilvy is perhaps best known for winning the 2006 U.S. Open that Phil Mickelson threw away on the final hole at Merion. But the Australian hadn't done much of anything in recent years and had fallen into triple digits in the world rankings.
One name was expected to roll over the backs of all three players in Monday's final round. This is, after all, the summer of Rory, with his three wins in three straight tournament appearances, including the majors at the British Open and PGA Championship. The world's No. 1 player was only two strokes out of the lead when the day began after a third-round 64 and everyone was anticipating another McIlroy clinic.
But we all know golf is more unpredictable than just about any other sport. You won't ever see LeBron James taken to school by a journeyman off the bench or watch Tom Brady be out-gunned by Ryan Fitzpatrick. But on this day, the 45th-ranked player in the world took down No. 1, leaving McIlroy as just another spectator during the tournament's climatic moments.
Kirk's putter was the main reason for his victory. On numerous occasions on the back nine he made wayward swings off the tee, disgustedly letting go of his club on the follow-through as the ball sailed in the wrong direction. But his putter and poise kept bailing him out.
Playing alongside McIlroy for the second straight day, Kirk drained putts from everywhere but Fenway Park en route to a closing 5-under par 66 that enriched his bank account by $1.4 million and vaulted him from 17th place to the top of the FedEx Cup standings. Among his clutch putts was a 23-footer for birdie at 13, a 15-footer for par at 15 and a 13-footer for birdie at 16.
Not bad for a guy who was so disgusted after his opening-round 73 that he skipped his customary post-round practice session at the range and instead visited the Kids Zone at TPC Boston to play putt-putt with his 2-year-old son.
"I told my caddie. 'This isn't any fun. I don't feel like going to hit balls. I'll see you tomorrow,' " Kirk said.
The next day brought a 66, followed by a 64 that matched McIlroy's round and then Monday's 66. We should all perform so well after blowing off practice.
McIlroy could blame a balky putter for his final-round 70. He made nothing on the greens Monday. His problems began on the first hole when he lipped out for birdie. He later lipped out an 8-foot par putt on the 10th. But his chance at victory truly vanished at the 12th when he missed a 20-foot birdie effort and then failed to make the 4-footer for par. It was his first three-putt in 153 holes. Yes, he's been playing fairly well.
That was frustrating. But not nearly as frustrating as what happened to Horschel. He stood in the 18th fairway following a 317-yard drive on the par-5, needing birdie to get into a playoff. The final hole at TPC Boston features a marsh in front of the green, but it also played as the second-easiest hole of the day, with 68 of the 73 players making par or better. Horschel had birdied it the first three days.
Now he stood 198 yards away, a 6-iron in his hand, and a playoff (or perhaps outright victory with an eagle) waiting.
And he flinched.
Horschel admitted afterward it was the worst swing he made all week. The ball found the marsh and the resulting bogey cost him the tournament.
"It was a perfect club and I just hit a bad shot at the wrong time," he said. "I haven't hit anything like that at all this week."
Pressure has a way of making that happen when you least expect it. Or maybe it's just the nature of golf. Just when you think you've got it figured out, golf throws you a curve. Even if you're Rory McIlroy.
And even if you're Chris Kirk. He had nearly as many missed cuts this season (two) as top 10 finishes (three) coming into the week, yet he now heads to the BMW Championship at Cherry Hills in Colorado as the pro with the best chance to capture the FedEx Cup and pocket the gaudy $10 million bonus.
After shooting 73 in the first round, Kirk was thinking more about going home than holding aloft the Deutsche Bank Championship trophy. In words that every golfer can relate to, he said afterward, "[It] shows you how ridiculous this game is."
Rob Duca is an award-winning sports columnist who wrote for the Cape Cod Times for 25 years, covering golf, the Boston Red Sox, the Boston Celtics and the Boston Bruins. He is now managing editor of New England Golf & Leisure magazine and has written for a variety of other publications, including Sports Illustrated, the Boston Globe, Yankee magazine and Cape Cod Life.