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    Thursday, April 18, 2024

    Column: Chris Kirk's road to recovery included roommates and Yahtzee

    Chris Kirk hits from the second tee during the first round of the Genesis Invitational golf tournament at Riviera Country Club, Thursday, Feb. 15, 2024, in the Pacific Palisades area of Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Ryan Kang)

    Chris Kirk knew the long road back from alcoholism and depression would require support from family at home and from PGA Tour friends on the road. Neither was in short supply.

    He just didn't know it also would involve Yahtzee.

    “It had to be Palm Springs two or three years ago,” Brendon Todd said. "Chris and Sepp (Straka) found a Yahtzee game in the house they were staying and they just got hooked. Now guys will carry a notebook for the year that fits seven or eight games on a page.

    “We started playing $20 a game, and that turned into a dollar a point, and it's gotten expensive. But it's a lot of fun.”

    Todd has been a regular roommate since Kirk returned to golf after a six-month break in 2019, along with Straka, Brian Harman and Greyson Sigg, occasionally Kevin Kisner. Most of them are connected through college golf at Georgia. There's also the outsider, Denny McCarthy, another huge contributor in Kirk's remarkable comeback. He went to Virginia.

    They were as critical to Kirk's success as his languid swing. They kept him company on the road, instead of Kirk spending long hours alone in a hotel room, part of which led him to keep company with a bottle until it got out of hand.

    So there's Yahtzee, the old-school game that combines dice with poker. Most of them are Braves fans, so there's usually a baseball game on TV at the house they rent. There's also Texas Hold 'em and now Pepper Pong, similar to table tennis but with softer paddles and balls.

    “Anything we can try to beat each other at,” Sigg said.

    Kirk now is in a good spot as he defends his title this week in the Cognizant Classic at PGA National, the start of the Florida swing that eventually leads to the Masters. He'll be back at Augusta National this year, courtesy of that clutch win at The Sentry to start the year on Maui.

    Kirk said Tuesday he keeps all his PGA Tour trophies together. While each has its own memory, all remind him to find joy in the long, lonely hours of work because winning doesn't happen nearly enough.

    But there was another award last year that reminds him no one can do it alone.

    All his roommates, including ex-Bulldogs Keith Mitchell and Russell Henley, stood at the back of the room at Sea Island last November to watch Kirk presented with the “Courage Award” from the PGA Tour for knowing when to step away, when to get help and the hard honesty it required to get his life and his game back on track.

    “I'm the house dad that rents a four- or five-bedroom house every week, and those guys stay with me and we hang around and play Yahtzee and play cards or whatever,” Kirk said. "That was definitely something that I made a point to do when I decided to come back, purely because I had all those bad memories of sitting by myself in a hotel room.

    “It's been a huge, huge, huge change as far as quality of life on the road,” he said. “I hope those guys feel the same.”

    They do.

    “I think it was exactly what he needed,” Todd said. “The time in hotels is what ate him up, just the time away from his family. He gets to be around his buddies, and to have people who hang out and distract him is a positive."

    As Kisner said, “Kirk surrounds himself in an environment to succeed.”

    Todd, Kirk, Kisner and Harman all were at Georgia together. Sigg, Henley, Mitchell and Straka arrived after Kirk had turned pro. It's still one big family.

    “When Kirk was battling some of his alcohol problems, he went back on the road and that's when he thought if he stayed in a house with some of his buddies, it would make the time go by easier off the golf course,” Sigg said. “I love it, too. It can get lonely out there when you're in a hotel room for three, four weeks in a row.”

    Kirk fits the description as the “house dad” because players say he usually finds them. Sometimes they go out for dinner, sometimes they have food delivered. A deck of cards always comes in handy. There's usually a game on the TV. No one talks golf.

    “It felt like no one cared how bad you played and they were encouraging when you played well," McCarthy said. "You leave golf at the course and have fun with guys. Coming off what he dealt with, I think he wanted to be around people who were close friends.”

    McCarthy started out as friends of Kirk's friends and now is part of the Georgia gang, even though Todd refers to McCarthy with mock disdain as “the Orioles fan.”

    “Chris and I have become good buddies,” McCarthy said. “He's been a role model for me out here. He's a true professional and handles things the right way.”

    Kirk was quick to acknowledge his posse at the back of the room at Sea Island when he received the Courage Award. He spoke of group texts involving who's playing where and what kind of houses he has found. He's still in a hotel a few times a year. Sometimes, families will be there and Yahtzee will have to wait for another week.

    But they were a big help to Kirk — and he was to them.

    “He's a great friend of all of us,” Sigg said. “If he ever needs anything from me, I'm here for him because he's always been there for me. So I wouldn't say we were doing him in a favor. I think we're all in this together.”

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