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The McGladrey Classic Recap: Kirk Captains a Victory

Len Hochberg

Len Hochberg

Hochberg covers golf for RotoWire. A veteran sports journalist, he was an editor and reporter at The Washington Post for many years, covering the Washington Capitals. He co-authored a book on the history of hockey.

With Chris Kirk's water-laden victory over sentimental choice Briny Baird on Sunday in the McGladrey Classic, the 2013 portion of the 2013-14 PGA Tour season nears its end. Five of the six events are complete. It is something we had not seen before, with the PGA Tour changing the dynamics of the fall schedule by making the tournaments count for more than just hundreds of thousands of dollars.

As with any time there's a change of such magnitude in sports, we are not be able to gauge a true indication of what this all means just yet. Most of the top players had already called it a year, at least on U.S. soil, choosing to skip the year-ending/season-beginning slate. Of course, it's all new to them too, and many may rethink their schedule next year - after all, the fall tournaments are now worth the same 500 FedEx points to the winner, plus an invite to the Masters. What difference does it make it whether you get those points in October or February?

For Kirk, a 28-year-old Atlanta native who will play Augusta for the first time, not much.

For the golfers who have started quickly - tournament winners Jimmy Walker, Ryan Moore, Webb Simpson, Dustin Johnson and Kirk - it's been a nice jump-start to their seasons. But after this week's OHL Classic at Mayakoba in Mexico, the PGA Tour will take a full-field hiatus until the Sony Open in the second week in January. Nearly two months off.

Of those five winners, only Moore and Kirk are in the field this week. Just one of the 30 golfers to reach the Tour Championship will compete, and that is Roberto Castro. A couple of big-name Latin golfers, Angel Cabrera and Alvaro Quiros, will tee it up south of the border.

KEYS TO VICTORY

Kirk's victory in the McGladrey Classic was wild to watch, partly because he survived a water ball on 15, largely because of the crushing water finish for Baird. But he is a golfer not only taking advantage of a weaker field; he seems to be on the precipice of greater things. Kirk just missed the Tour Championship in September, finishing 31st in the FedEx Cup regular-season standings and 34th after three playoff events. He was 33rd in 2011, when he notched his only prior win, albeit in the Viking Classic opposite the Open Championship.

Kirk will always be a good fantasy choice because of his putting. He finished 18th on Tour last season in strokes gained-putting, eighth in total birdies and first in eagles - and that after being only 69th in greens in regulation.

In the McGladrey, he finished T15 in GIR, leading to a tournament-high 20 birdies. If this week was an indication of improved GIR, watch out. His scoring average last season was 27th on Tour, ahead of the likes of Zurich Classic winner Billy Horschel, Ricky Fowler, Ian Poulter, Graeme McDowell and, yes, Rory McIlroy. In hindsight, it's a wonder he didn't do better, with only three top-10 checks (including a T5 in the Sony and runner-up at Pebble Beach - an early-season alert for Kirk shoppers).

Getting to the green has always been Kirk's issue, and that surfaced on Sunday, when he almost kicked away the tournament. He drove into a hazard on 14, and again with his approach on 15. But he managed to save par on 15, then delivered a clutch birdie on 17 for what proved to be the difference in a one-stroke win over fast-charging Tim Clark (a Sunday 62) and the hard-luck Baird.

Baird, who is on the rebound from shoulder injuries that cost him all last season, went to the 18th bogey-free on the day. But he found a fairway bunker off the tee and then the water with his second shot, finishing with a bogey-5. At 41, Baird has now gone 365 events without a victory. But with his sixth career second-place finish, he earned $484,000, more than he needed on his Major Medical Extension.

So Baird will not only be in the field in Mexico this week, he will get many more opportunities when the Tour resumes in January, when the big boys return in full force.

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