By The Associated Press
MADISON — After a tap-in putt for a one-stroke victory at the Viking Classic, Chris Kirk picked up his ball, gave a nearly indiscernible fist pump and strode off the course like a man who’s done it a hundred times.
Not exactly what you’d expect from a first-time PGA Tour winner.
“I gave a little bit of a fist pump, I think, didn’t I?” Kirk said grinning. “I don’t know. I made a three-inch putt to win. That’s not exactly an accomplishment. All the other shots I hit were pretty good, though.”
They certainly were. Kirk, a 26-year-old rookie, shot a 4-under 68 to beat Tom Pernice Jr. and George McNeill by one stroke at Annandale Golf Club. It ended an impressive week for the Georgia graduate, who tied the tournament record with a 22-under performance over four rounds.
Kirk had a one-stroke lead going into the final round and rarely flinched. He never trailed, breaking a tie with McNeill on No. 17 by hitting a 140-yard approach over water to within five feet of the hole for an easy birdie putt.
The bold shot looked risky. But Kirk calmly surveyed his options and said he never thought twice.
“People sometimes make more of it than what it is,” Kirk said. “It was 140 yards and it was a 9-iron, so I was aiming right at the pin and nowhere else. That was my only thought.”
Kirk played his first PGA Tour event at the Viking Classic in 2007, receiving a sponsor’s exemption just weeks after turning pro. But he missed the cut, and on Sunday marveled at how much things have changed in four years.
“It’s pretty amazing to think back to then, how far I’ve come from,” Kirk said. “My game isn’t that much better than it was then, but just the comfort level that I have now to be able to go out for 18 today and feel one hundred percent comfortable in my own skin.”
Annandale received more than 4.5 inches of rain over the past week, and the soft fairways and greens led to plentiful birdies throughout the tournament. But the final round proved to be the toughest, with scores rising slightly as the course dried out and wind picked up.
Sunghoon Kang, another rookie, and McNeill started the day one stroke behind Kirk, but couldn’t keep pace.
Pernice fell just short in his bid to become the second-oldest winner in tour history and the first over-50 player to win since Fred Funk in 2007. Sam Snead was 52 when he won the Greater Greensboro Open in 1965.
Pernice started the day two strokes back, but fired a 67 for the third straight day to stay in contention. He put his approach shot on No. 18 within 10 feet of the hole, but his birdie putt slid to the left at the last second. McNeill also missed a birdie putt on No. 18.
“I just needed to make a good firm stroke, maybe just outside the right edge and all that good stuff,” Pernice said. “But it looked like I pulled it.”
Pernice said Kirk’s victory wasn’t surprising considering his consistency throughout the season.
“The young guys are getting bigger and stronger and they’re able to compete right away,” Pernice said.
Kirk is the fifth rookie to win on the tour this season — just the second time that’s happened since 1970. He’s been consistent all season, ranking 51st on the money list coming into the Viking Classic, and just missed his first career win after finishing second to Phil Mickelson at the Shell Houston Open.
The victory earns Kirk $648,000 of the $3.6 million purse and 250 points in the FedEx Cup.