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Chris Kirk | The Sentry

By The Associated Press

KAPALUA, Hawaii (AP) — Nearly a year after Chris Kirk made it all the way back by winning, he took another big step Sunday with a clutch 5-iron to 2 feet for birdie on the 17th hole that led to an 8-under 65 and a one-shot victory in The Sentry.

It was the third straight year the winner at Kapalua posted a Sunday round of 8 under or better, and Kirk required no less to win the PGA Tour’s season opener.

Sahith Theegala and Jordan Spieth each caught up to him on the back nine of another surprisingly calm day.

Theegala missed a 10-foot birdie chance on the par-5 closing hole and shot 63. Spieth, whose tee shot on the 16th plugged under the lip of a bunker and led to a most untimely bogey, missed a 15-foot eagle putt on the 18th and shot 65 to finish a further shot back.

Kirk was tied when he hit 5-iron from 209 yards over the gorge to a right pin, the ball rolling out to just over 2 feet for a tap-in birdie on the toughest hole on the back nine of the Plantation course. That allowed him to play the 18th conservatively, knowing a par would be enough for his sixth career PGA Tour victory.

He finished at 29-under 263 and earned $3.6 million from the $20 million purse, the first of eight signature events in the new PGA Tour model of big purses and elite fields.

The 38-year-old from Georgia looks as relaxed as anyone, a good fit for the islands. His greatest win remains his recovery from alcoholism and depression, which led to him stepping away for six months of treatment in 2019.

He won the Honda Classic last year, and the PGA Tour honored him with its “Courage Award” at the end of the season. There was no better way to start the new year.

The victory assures him a spot in the Masters — he was just outside the top 50 in the world at the end of last year — and allows him to book a return trip to Kapalua to start next year.

He was making his first appearance at The Sentry in eight years.

“I’m so thankful for these last five years. It’s been incredible,” Kirk said. “I’m enjoying competing, I’m enjoying the work. I didn’t have that for a while. It’s a constant process and I’m just loving every minute of it.”

Akshay Bhatia, who started the final round one shot behind, never had much of a chance after sending his opening tee shots into the native grass. He never found the ball, had to return to the tee, started with a double bogey and was never in the mix.

Spieth, who won in 2016 at Kapalua, stayed in the hunt all day with his five straight birdies around the turn. He caught up to Kirk and Theegala with birdies at the 14th and 15th. And then his chances all but ended with one swing.

His drive on the 16th found a bunker that divides the fairways, but it plugged right beneath the face, leaving him no chance but to chop out sideways. He missed a 12-foot par putt — his first hole over par since an out-of-bounds tee shot led to double bogey on the third hole of the opening round — and didn’t have enough holes left to atone for it.

“It was a full shot (penalty) at a pretty pivotal time,” Spieth said. “But I’ve got to be a little tighter off the tee.”

Theegala was in the group ahead of Spieth and made birdie on the 16th, and Spieth’s bogey suddenly dropped him three shots behind. Theegala had a one-shot lead with that birdie.

Kirk made par from just short of the reachable par-4 14th, with a pedestrian pitch that came up 18 feet short of the hole for a two-putt par. He also missed a 12-foot birdie chance on the 16th to regain the lead.

But he delivered the key shot on the 17th, a birdie that gave him comfort playing the 18th and its spectacular view of the Pacific Ocean and the island of Molokai on the horizon.

Sungjae Im managed to get into the PGA Tour record books with 34 birdies for the week. The previous record for a 72-hole tournament was 32 set three times, most recently last year by Jon Rahm. That illustrates what kind of test the Plantation course has become.

Check out “Watts” in Chris Kirk’s bag below.

Driver: Callaway Paradym Triple Diamond (9 degrees @10.7) – Shaft: Fujikura Ventus Blue 6 TX

3-wood: TaylorMade Stealth 2 Plus (15 degrees) – Shaft: Fujikura Ventus Blue 8 TX

5-wood: TaylorMade Stealth 2 (18 degrees) – Shaft: Fujikura Ventus Blue 8 TX

Irons: Callaway Apex Pro (4), Callaway Apex CB (5-9) – Shafts: Project X LZ 125 6.5

Wedges: Callaway Jaws MD5 (46-10S @47, 50-10S), Vokey Design SM9 (56-08M), Callaway Jaws Raw (60) – Shafts: True Temper Dynamic Gold S200

Putter: Odyssey Ai One Milled Six T CH

Ball: Titleist Pro V1x