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ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. – Chris Kirk watches golf on television when he's not playing. He likes seeing how players cope with pressure and pull off great shots because he can appreciate the nerves. And it never ceases to amaze him how it rarely takes a perfect round of golf to win a tournament.
He was the star attraction on Sea Island, and it was far from perfect.
Kirk went six holes without making a birdie and fell two shots behind. After making four birdies in six holes to regain the lead, he hit into the hazard on the 14th and 15th holes and looked like he had thrown away the tournament.
He wound up a winner Sunday in the McGladrey Classic, in small part due to Briny Baird topping a shot out of the bunker and into the hazard.
"The biggest thing that I've learned over the years is that you don't — and anybody could see this watching on Sunday — you don't have to play perfect golf to win a tour event," Kirk said. "You have some stuff like I did on 14 and 15 today. I had two three-putts yesterday. You definitely don't have to play perfect golf. You've just got to play enough really good golf to make up for it."
He did enough right, and then watched the final hole go horribly wrong for Baird.
They were tied for the lead on the 18th hole. Kirk, who hit his tee shot into the rough on the left, stood on the other side of the fairway to stay clear of Baird, was in a bunker left of the bunker with the ball slightly below his feet. Baird topped his 4-iron, and the ball tumbled into the water some 90 yards away in a devastating end to his latest chance to finally win on the PGA Tour.
"It hurt to do what I did on the last hole," Baird said.
Kirk went from trying to make birdie to realizing he only needed a par, and he handled that with ease. It gave him a 4-under 66 and a one-shot win over Baird and Tim Clark, who had closed with a 62 and was on the practice range in case Kirk and Baird made a mistake down the 18th.
Only one of them did.
Baird is now 0-for-365 in his PGA Tour career, and it looked for the longest time that he finally would win. He was two shots behind with six holes to play when the final round turned suddenly in his favor — a 30-foot birdie putt on the 13th, and a two-shot swing on the 14th when Baird made an 8-foot birdie and Kirk had to scramble for bogey after pulling his tee shot into the hazard.
It never looked better for Baird than on the par-5 15th.
He hit his approach to 40 feet for a putt 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.
Kirk finished at 14-under 266, and with his second career victory came plenty of spoils — starting with his first trip to the Masters in April. The only time Kirk had ever been to Augusta National was during his college days at Georgia when a few alumni who are Augusta members used to invite the golf team.
Kirk's other win was the Viking Classic in Mississippi in 2011, opposite the British Open, and it wasn't accompanied by a Masters invitation. He called the McGladrey Classic "the biggest win of his career," which sounded obvious but accounts for a personal connection.
Kirk moved to Sea Island in 2007, and only a few months ago decided to move back to Atlanta because his wife is due next month with their second home. They wanted to be closer to family, though Kirk is keeping the home in Sea Island.
And it meant something to win a tournament where the host was his hero — Davis Love III.
"Davis was kind of the guy when I was 12 and 13, really starting to play golf," Kirk said. "He was my favorite player that I always kind of looked up to, 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 obviously to win his tournament really means a lot to me."
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 as trophies.
He 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.
But 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."