Chris Kirk was the last man standing at the 2023 Honda Classic as he successfully fended off a feisty Eric Cole in a playoff for his fifth career PGA Tour victory and first win in more than eight years. The final pairing went back-and-forth Sunday in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, as a featherweight bout unfolded on the grounds of PGA National. Two players in their mid-30s entered the ring and only one remained when play was completed.
Beginning the final round with a two-stroke lead, Kirk quickly extended his margin to three with an opening birdie. Cole hit him with a few body punches of his own as he rattled off three straight birdies from Nos. 3-5 to draw even.
This seesaw battle would continue into the inward nine as Cole jumped out in front for the first time all day with another birdie on the par-4 13th. A bogey two holes later knocked him off balance and a counterpunch by Kirk on the 16th in the form of a birdie put the former Bulldog in command with two to play.
After an exchange of pars, the two both found the fairway on the 72nd hole before Kirk’s second shot landed in the water. When Cole was unable to get-up-and-down for his birdie, Kirk tapped in for bogey to force a playoff.
In extra holes, Kirk put himself behind the eight ball when his missed the fairway, but a successful layup set the stage. From 101 yards out, the 37-year-old stuck his approach to tap-in distance. Once Cole’s birdie bid from 10 feet away lipped out, Kirk’s fifth victory was finally his.
“I was obviously very, very nervous today having not won in so long coming down the stretch,” Kirk said. “I felt good, that putt on 16 was huge and I was in a great position on 18. I just made a bad swing at a bad time, but I was trying to stay aggressive and hit it in the middle of the green. In hindsight it may have been better to hit it over there left somewhere, but thank God it worked out.”
From a broader perspective, the PGA Tour could not have scripted a better tournament following two designated events on the West Coast. Even though the field lacked star power relative to those at TPC Scottsdale and Riviera, the storylines were still abundant. Between Kirk and Cole battling it out down the stretch at a treacherous golf course and a player such as Ryan Gerard attempting to go from Monday qualifying to winning on the PGA Tour, this “regular” event brought the heat.
“I can’t yet [describe this moment],” Kirk said. “I just have so much to be thankful for. I am so grateful, I am so grateful for my sobriety, I am so grateful for my family, I am so grateful for everyone who has supported me throughout the past three or four years.”
While a $3.6 million top prize in a designated event is wonderful and brings out the best in the top players, a quality outing to players in this field is arguably more meaningful. For Gerard it meant a spot in the field next week at the Puerto Rico Open. For Cole it meant job security in the form of much-needed FedEx Cup points.
Finally, for Kirk it means the climb since taking an indefinite leave in 2019 to seek help in his battle against alcohol is complete.
“I think more than the time [since my last win], just how much my life has changed in that time, getting close to four years of sobriety, and that is the reason why I’m able to play,” said Kirk. “It’s the reason why I have such a great relationship with my family. Everything that I have is because of that. I have to remember that first and foremost, and it’ll sink in eventually, but it certainly hasn’t right now.”
It also means a trip back to Georgia. No, not to his alma mater in Athens, but rather to Augusta National where Kirk will be invited to the 2023 Masters for the fourth time in his career and first time since 2016. Grade: A+
Here is the breakdown of the rest of the leaderboard at the 2023 Honda Classic
T5. Sepp Straka (-9): The defending champion began his weekend with four straight birdies in his third round but was unable to fully claw his way back into contention. The good news for Straka is this finish marks his best result on the PGA Tour since falling in a playoff to Mackenzie Hughes at the Sanderson Farms Championship. The Austrian has been known as a player to go on mini-spurts when he finds his form — just look at last year’s FedEx Cup Playoffs — and another could be in his near future. Grade: A-
T5. Shane Lowry (-9): It has been a slow start to 2023 for the Irishman but the Honda Classic was another step in the right direction. Finding something at Riviera, Lowry carried some mojo from the West Coast to the state of Florida. Lowry was unable to avenge his runner-up performance from a season ago, yet will still take solace in this performance. His stellar tee-to-green acumen has now been on display for two straight weeks leaving him only the putter — which has been a problem area for the last eight months — to figure out. Grade: B+
T40. Billy Horschel (-2): The former Florida Gator began the week admitting he was under the weather and resistant to swing changes. Horschel shot out to a share of the first-round lead with a 5-under 65 but immediately backtracked on Friday with a round of 3 over. This back-and-forth, up-and-down performance encapsulates Horschel’s start to 2023. There has been some good, but the bad has outweighed it as he has yet to collect a top-20 finish in five tournaments. Grade: C
T40. Sungjae Im (-2): A heavy playing schedule may be beginning to catch up to the South Korean. Since the calendar flipped to 2023, Im has only taken only one tournament off (AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am) and is scheduled to play five straight weeks by the time The Players Championship concludes. He was the clear class of this field and while his off-the-tee numbers were promising, his approach and putting metrics were equally discouraging. Grade: C-
MC. Denny McCarthy (-): He lives down the street from PGA National so the early exit was not too much of a burden on his travel plans. McCarthy remains winless on the PGA Tour and the relatively weak field at the Honda Classic appeared prime for his breakthrough moment. He was unable to recover from a 5-over 75 in Round 1 and will instead search elsewhere for his first victory. Grade: F
Rick Gehman is joined by Greg DuCharme, Mark Immelman and Patrick McDonald to recap the 2023 Honda Classic at PGA National and take a look at what happened at LIV Mayakoba. Follow & listen to The First Cut on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.