While getting sober in 2019, Chris Kirk didn't care about golf. Now, he's co-leading the RMC

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Detroit — They're back, and more than anything, that's the thrill of it all.

Webb Simpson is back from a COVID-19 scare that cost him a spot in last week's field and threw him on what he called an emotional roller-coaster. And Chris Kirk, Simpson's co-leader at the halfway point of a thrilling second showing of the Rocket Mortgage Classic, has his life back.

Kirk shot a blistering 7-under 65 at Detroit Golf Club on Friday in a round that included back-to-back holeouts for birdies to surge to the top of the leaderboard — just 14 months after he decided he had to get himself sober, with the first order of business being a self-imposed seven-month break from professional golf.

Chris Kirk tees off on the 15th hole Friday.

The Rocket Mortgage Classic is just his seventh PGA Tour tournament since his November return, this week is just one of his three made cuts in that span, and Kirk still wouldn't describe himself as "comfortable," at least on the golf course — even after winning on the Korn Ferry Tour last week.

"I would say it's still a process, to be honest," Kirk said. "Am I at the comfort level that I was at five years ago? Probably not. But as far as my life in general is concerned, I'm probably at an all-time high.

"I think a lot of that carries over to my golf game and how I feel on the golf course."

Kirk is feeling just swell this week, joining Simpson, who shot an 8-under 64 that could've been even better if not for some slipups on the back-nine par 5s, at 12 under through two rounds. 

They lead a bunched-up leaderboard at Detroit Golf Club, which again is a birdie playground for the best golfers on the planet. Six players were a shot back at 11 under, including the star of the week, Bryson DeChambeau, and another of the game's young guns, Matthew Wolff. Ryan Armour also is in that group after shooting 64, highlighted by an ace at the short par-3 fifth hole.

Kevin Kisner and Sepp Straka — whose twin brother Sam is Kirk's caddie this week — were at 10 under, and nine more were at 9 under, including Oakland alum and Jackson native Brian Stuard, in contention in his home-state tournament for a second consecutive year, and last year's runner-up, Doc Redman.

In all, 29 players enter the weekend within four shots of the lead, possibly setting up a thrilling shootout, a year after Nate Lashley lapped the field in winning by six, leading wire to wire.

Lashley made bogey at No. 18 on Friday, to miss the cut by a stroke.

Kirk was making a run at the course record — 63, set last year by Lashley, matched by J.T. Poston, and then again by Lashley — along with several others in the afternoon during the second round, until making bogey at the tough par-4 finishing hole.

His card was otherwise clean, with eight birdies, including back-to-back at Nos. 11 and 12, despite not even hitting either green. He holed a bunker shot at the par-3 11th, and a chip at the par-4 12th.

Fourteen months ago, after that last drink in April 2019 (he also battled depression), Kirk didn't even know if he'd play golf again, or even if he wanted to.

"I didn't really know what to think about my future," Kirk said. "I kind of just didn't care at that point. I was focused on doing what I needed to do to be healthy, to be a good husband for my wife and good father to my kids. I was thankfully in a place financially where my career could wait. I definitely had feelings for a number of months there that I just had no desire to play golf.

"It wasn't that, 'Oh, I hate golf, I never want to do this again,' I just had no real desire to do it.

"I felt busy working on what I was working on."

For Simpson, he's trying to win his second consecutive tournament, after he pulled out of last week's Travelers Championship amid a possible COVID-19 exposure on the home front. He tested negative, as did each of his immediate family members, and he scrambled to get to Detroit, where he had committed, but then thought he'd have to miss among the health scare.

The highest-ranked player in the world, he's showing it, following his 68 with a 64 that also included a clutch holeout from the bunker, his a 28-foot blast from a greenside trap for birdie at No. 16.

He made par on both par 5s on the back nine; otherwise, he could've set the course record. Simpson missed just one fairway and one green all day Friday.

"When I was sitting home ... I decided I want to go play," Simpson said. "I've heard great things about the golf course. It's a Donald Ross design, and the guys that played here last year that I talked to about it loved the golf tournament, they loved what Rocket Mortgage did. So I knew enough to know that I should come if I could come and it worked out with my family."

Simpson and Kirk are friends — "I'm so proud of what he's been able to do," Simpson said — and will be the last pairing off the tee Saturday afternoon.

But they'll have a whole host of objects in their rearview mirror that are closer than they appear, starting with Wolff and DeChameau. They're joined a shot back by Armour, Seamus Power, Mark Hubbard and Richy Werenski.

Wolff — yes, he of the funky pre-swing lower-body shimmy — is in the field for the second time, after the tournament gave him a sponsor's exemption last year. This year, in return, he's given them a show, with a 64 on Friday. He had six consecutive birdies at one point, no birdie putts longer than 12 feet during that stretch.


He attributes that shot-making to a change he made Monday. In the midst of a down sophomore year, after earning his first PGA Tour win in 2019 the week after the Rocket, he decided to add 2 degrees of loft to his irons. He wanted more spin, and more distance control, and boy, did he get it.

His attitude, though, might be the bigger difference.

"I was really caring too much about the outcome and thinking about every little factor on every single shot," said Wolff, who missed the cut the previous two weeks. "I'm kind of just doing what I usually do and go out there, keep it simple and have fun and remember that it's just a game and whatever happens, happens.

"I'm pretty confident in myself and know that I'm going to be out here for a long time, so I don't need to be putting all that pressure on one shot or one missed cut."

Wolff, by the way, is three shots clear of his former Oklahoma State teammate and fellow PGA Tour rising star Viktor Hovland, who also got one of those coveted sponsor's exemptions in the Rocket last year. Loyalty could have them coming back to Detroit for years, well into their prime, potentially superstardom days.

DeChambeau might already be in that prime, at least physically — and he's well on his way to fame, given he's been the buzz on the PGA Tour for months. He followed up his opening 66 with a 67. Interestingly, he had four bogeys in his first round, and none in his second.

He used his steady diet of 330-yard-plus drives again to work his way around DGC, with his second-longest a 352-yarder (he maxed out at 355) that nearly got greenside at the par-4 third. On the next hole, he reached the 634-yard par 5, with a 337-yard drive down the middle, followed by a 289-yard wood to 46 feet. He two-putted for birdie. 

Perhaps his best hole of the day resulted in a par, an amazing par, at the par-4 eighth. He pulled his tee shot into the rough and had a terrible lie just on the lip of a bunker. He flew that shot over the green, into more thick rough and shortsiding himself. But he flopped it to 5 feet, and salvaged the hole.

"My thought process on the second shot," said DeChambeau, "was why did I hit it here."

If the driver is getting DeChambeau into contention, it's the irons, especially the short irons, that have kept him from winning since 2018.

He said after Thursday's round he played his "B" game and still said his "A" game hasn't showed up in Detroit, even though he's got a share of the lead and is well in line for a seventh straight top-10 finish.

So this is becoming old-hat for DeChambeau, or is it old Hogan hat?

On the flip side of things, just like a year ago, some of the biggest names in the field will be going home after two rounds, including world No. 7 Patrick Reed, who tied for fifth in Detroit a year ago, and Bubba Watson, who missed the cut for the second consecutive year.

Watson's impact still has been felt in two years, as he's taken a liking to Detroit, donating $20,000 to The First Tee of Detroit last year, and $25,000 to the tournament's main charitable mission, ending Detroit's digital divide, this year. Rickie Fowler (he made the cut, and was at 6 under) is the paid ambassador for the Rocket Mortgage Classic, but he's definitely got a friend in Watson.

Reed and Watson both finished 2 under, with the cut ending up at 5. Another star in the field, Jason Day, missed the cut by a stroke, with world No. 50 Brandt Snedeker missing by three.

Both Reed and Watson, by the way, stuck it stiff at their last hole of the day, the par-3 ninth.

"Man," said Watson, "I can go home with the best of them."


Twitter: @tonypaul1984