ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. — Chris Kirk knew he was doing enough right Sunday at Sea Island to win a tournament that means so much to him. He just didn’t realize it would take something that went so wrong for Briny Baird.
Tied for the lead in The McGladrey Classic, Kirk was on the other side of the 18th fairway trying to envision an approach that would cover the flag and set up a birdie chance for the win. Those plans changed when Baird, with the ball below his feet in a fairway bunker, topped a 4-iron and watched his ball roll 90 yards and into a hazard.
Kirk played for par, closed with a 4-under 66 for a one-shot victory, and became the first player from Sea Island to win The McGladrey Classic — even if the 28-year-old moved to Atlanta a few months ago after six years in this tiny slice of paradise.
He earned 500 FedExCup points to move to No. 4 in the 2013-14 standings and received the trophy from tournament host Davis Love III, his hero when he first took the game seriously.
“To come here to Sea Island, which is a place that I love and cherish so much, and Davis’s tournament, it just an unbelievable thing,” Kirk said. “Davis was kind of my guy when I was 12 and 13, really starting to play golf. He was my favorite player, and he’s turned from being my idol to sort of a mentor and good friend. So I’m a very lucky person to be in that situation, and to win his tournament really means a lot to me.”
The victory sends Kirk to the Masters for the first time, a tournament that means even more.
His joy was tempered slightly by the way the tournament finished.
“It hurt to do what I did on the last hole,” Baird said.
Baird is now 0-for-365 in his PGA Tour career, and it looked for the longest time that he finally would win. Baird went from a two-shot deficit to a one-shot lead in two holes on the back nine, and he was on the verge of seizing control on the par-5 15th.
Baird hit his approach to 40 feet for a chance at eagle. Kirk was between clubs and pulled his hybrid into the water left of the green, and then he slammed his wedge into the turf when he chipped weakly, leaving him a long putt for par. It looked as if Baird would lead by two shots, maybe three, with three holes to play.
Instead, he ran his eagle putt 4 feet by the cup and three-putted for par, and Kirk holed his 20-foot par putt to stay only one shot behind.
“That kept me in it,” Kirk said.
He caught Baird with a 15-foot birdie putt on the 17th hole, setting up one last surprise on a back nine filled with them.
Tim Clark closed with a 62 and was on the practice range, holding out slim hope for a playoff if Kirk and Baird made bogey on the 18th. Only one of them faltered, and it was shocking. Baird had a tough lie in the sand, and he felt his left foot slip. Even so, he felt he should have been able to pull off the shot. It wasn’t even close.
Baird struggled with his swing most of the day, and he told his caddie he didn’t feel comfortable with it going down the 18th.
“You mix that with nerves, and it’s a recipe for disaster,” Baird said.
Kirk finished at 14-under 266, and his last tournament of 2013 came with plenty of perks — the biggest a great start in the FedExCup chase. He also earns a trip to Augusta National, which he only has played when Georgia alumni used to invited the golf team over once a year.
Aditionally he punches his ticket to the Hyundai Tournament of Champions at Kapalua to start 2014.
And his parents get a new photo for their mantle. The one they have is from a decade ago, when Kirk finished his sophomore year in high school and played in the Canon Cup north of Chicago. It was the first time he met Love, and his parents still have a photo of their son with sideburns and braces.
“It’s a pretty funny picture now,” Kirk said.
Now he can give them a photo of Kirk and Love posing with the trophy on the 18th green of the Seaside course at Sea Island, where Kirk had lived for the last six years until moving back to Atlanta because his wife is due next month with their second child. He still has his home at Sea Island, and it felt like the home with a large gallery waiting for him around the 18th green.
It was the first time Kirk could recall such a large gallery cheering for him.
If there was any consolation for Baird, it was money, of all things. The 41-year-old from Miami has said for years that he would rather have a season full of strong finishes that gets him into the Tour Championship than one win and nothing else. Even this week, he said tournament golf is as much about money than trophies.
For his efforts, he earned 245 FedExCup points and climbed to seventh in the standings. While he still has work to do to qualify for East Lake, his status for the duration of this season is now safe.
Baird earned $484,000 for his tie for second, and the 25-foot bogey putt was worth $220,000. Baird was playing this year on a major medical extension from having surgery on both shoulders in 2012, and the money he earned Sunday was enough for him to keep his card for the rest of the season.
It was a small consolation.
“It’s not all about winning,” Baird said Sunday. “I’ve said that, but this hurts. This really does. This is very disappointing.”
ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. — Chris Kirk and Briny Baird each made birdie on the 18th hole Saturday to separate themselves from the pack at The McGladrey Classic.
But not by much.
Kirk (pictured) holed a 25-foot putt for a 2-under 68. Baird followed him with an 8-foot birdie putt for a 67. They were tied for the lead going into the last round at Sea Island, one shot ahead of Kevin Stadler (65), Brian Gay (66) and John Senden (68).
Twelve players were separated by four shots going into Sunday, a group that includes Sea Island resident Matt Kuchar and Webb Simpson, the former U.S. Open champion who won last month in Las Vegas.
Asked what it would take to win, Baird flippantly replied, “One less than the next best guy.”
Doing that remains the trick, and not just for Baird. This is his 365th event in his career, and he still hasn’t won. Baird had a chance two years ago at the Frys.com Open when he had the first 54-hole lead of his career and wound up losing to Bryce Molder in a six-hole playoff.
The top eight players on the leaderboard have combined for seven career wins, and that includes Gay’s four victories.
Stadler is 0 for 235 in his PGA Tour career, and he wasn’t even planning to play Sea Island until realizing he had nothing better to do this week and that after next week in Mexico, the Tour goes into a short winter’s nap until January.
Brendon Todd is winless going into his third full season. He had a 67 and was in the group two shots behind. Jason Kokrak has never won. He had a 69 and was three shots behind. The winner Sunday gets will move into the top 5 in the FedExCup standings and earn a trip to next season’s Hyundai Tournament of Champions and Masters Tournament. None of the top eight are exempt to Augusta National.
Baird boosted his chances with three straight birdies at the end — a short iron to 3 feet on No. 16, a 5-iron to about 15 feet on the par-3 17th and a shot that took a reasonable bounce toward the pin for the 8-foot birdie.
“It’s a great way to finish and it puts me in a better position going into tomorrow than if I’d have just finished with pars,” Baird said. “That would have made the work tomorrow considerably harder.”
Baird and Kirk were at 10-under 200.
Kirk also had to rally late, though he made his three straight birdies in the middle of his back nine. Despite having a birdie putt on every hole, Kirk was 2 over for his round when he three-putted the par-3 12th. He hit it close on the 13th for his first birdie, and then caught a big break after an errant tee shot to right on No. 14.
The ball was on a cart path, and two drops that rolled down a slope and back onto the path allowed him to place the ball on the slope. Aiming around a tree and into the wind, he used the slope to accentuate his draw and belted 5-iron from 176 yards to 12 feet for birdie. He followed that with a two-putt birdie on the par-5 15th.
Kirk was one of the early residents at Sea Island until moving to Atlanta earlier this year, though he knows the Seaside Course as well as anyone. He also knows what it takes when the leaderboard is loaded with possibilities, a similar situation to when he won in Mississippi two years ago for his only TOUR title.
“It’s not like you can just go out there and play conservative and try to hold onto your lead,” he said. “It’s sort of anybody’s game. Obviously, I’m happy to be tied for the lead right now because that’s one less shot that I’ve got to go get tomorrow. But I’ve got to go play a really good round tomorrow, and hope that nobody plays a really great round tomorrow.”
The forecast was for less wind on Sunday, which could add to the element of a shootout. There was no wind in the opening round and the average score was 69.1. With wind on Friday, the course played three shots more difficult.
Kuchar, at No. 8 in the world the highest-ranked player at Sea Island, had his third straight round of 68 and had the largest following after tournament host Davis Love III missed the cut. He made a 10-foot par save on the last hole to stay within four shots of the lead.
“Pretty amazing to do three straight rounds of 68,” Kuchar said. “But looks like I’m going to have to go a lot deeper tomorrow to catch these guys.”
Divots: Michael Putnam received a trophy Saturday even though he was 13 shots out of the lead. He was awarded the Web.com Tour player of the year for leading the money list on the circuit. … Only one player from the top eight — Chris Kirk at No. 93 — is among the top 100 in the world ranking.