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Chris Kirk, 14 months sober and fresh off win, starts hot at Rocket Mortgage Classic

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Detroit — Chris Kirk will forever remember April 29, 2019.

Perhaps, he'll have a reason to forever remember July 3, 2020, when they'll be handing out a trophy here at Detroit Golf Club.

Kirk fired a 5-under 67 to surge into early contention at the Rocket Mortgage Classic, just 14 months since he took his last drink of alcohol — and just seven months since he returned to competitive golf after taking an extended break to address his alcoholism and depression.

Chris Kirk hits from the sand on the eighth hole Thursdsay during the first round of the Rocket Mortgage Classic at Detroit Golf Club.

Kirk has been very up-front about the reasons for his self-imposed break last year, and has recently become one heck of a story, after he earned an emotional win on the Korn Ferry Tour in Florida two weeks ago.

"It just gave me a little bit more belief," said Kirk, 35, from Knoxville, Tennessee. "I think that before that, I knew that I was playing well, but obviously wasn't seeing much in the way of results.

"I felt like I was working on the right things with my putting, but nothing can replace the confidence you get from shooting some low numbers and playing well when it counts."

Kirk entered this week ranked 269th in the world, having missed the cut in five of seven tournaments since returning to the PGA Tour at the Mayakoba Classic in 2019.

But, the Rocket Mortgage Classic, at least in its abbreviated history, has a track record of long shots rising to the occasion. Last year's champ, Nate Lashley, entered the week ranked No. 353 in the world.

Lashley, too, has a heart-tugging personal back story, having lost his parents and girlfriend in an airplane crash when he was in college in 2004.

COMPLETE ROCKET MORTGAGE CLASSIC COVERAGE

For Kirk, alcoholism runs in the family, he told PGATour.com, and last April, he woke up in a hotel room in New Orleans and finally decided enough was enough. He went home, told his wife and agent, and then within a couple of weeks announced to the world on Twitter what was going on.

"I have dealt with alcohol abuse and depression for some time now," Kirk wrote just before his 34th birthday. "I thought I could control it, but I have come to the realization that I can't fix this on my own.

"I don't know when I'll be back, but for now I need my full focus on being the man my family deserves."

Kirk didn't hide his issues, the alcoholism being something that runs in his extended family, he has said.

Ahead of the Mayakoba Classic, he talked openly about his process.

"Everybody has issues," Kirk told PGATour.com. "Everybody has stuff that is bothering them that they need to work on. This just happens to be my thing."

Now, his thing seems to be playing some darn good golf, making the cut at the PGA Tour's first tournament since the restart, the Charles Schwab Challenge early last month. Not securing spots in the next two tournaments, he dropped down to the Korn Ferry Tour, which he hadn't played since 2010.

Kirk shot 26 under par, and won more than $100,000, doubling what he's won on the PGA Tour this season, and almost half as much as he won on the PGA Tour last season.

On Thursday, Kirk started with a bogey, three-putting from about 15 feet, but got back on track with an eagle at the par-5 14th, hitting a 273-yard second shot to 30 feet, then making the putt. He then hit it to 11 feet on the short par-3 15th, making that putt, too.

Kirk, who has won three times on the PGA Tour but not since 2015, reeled off three consecutive birdies in the middle of his second nine holes to get it to 6 under, before a mis-hit on his second shot at the par-4 sixth hole led to another bogey.

Still, the 67 was his best round, in relation to par, this season, and left him two shots off the lead, and in a bunch-up group at 5 under that included Rickie Fowler.

"This is just an awesome golf course," said Kirk, who this week was playing Detroit Golf Club for the first time. "Just really enjoyed playing. I played well on Tuesday and I was able to keep it going today."

tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tonypaul1984