66s push Kirk, Horschel to lead in Atlanta

ATLANTA – Nothing like a Georgia-Florida tussle to provide a little Happy Hour fuel for the Bulldog faithful.

Good thing, too, because by the time the dinner hour arrived, Rory McIlroy had finished, and so, too, had Bubba Watson and Rickie Fowler. There was great warmth, the taps were still flowing, the corporate chalets had plenty of front-row seats, but what was going to maintain the fans’ interest in this sleepy opening round to the Tour Championship?

How ‘bout Nos. 1 and 2 in the FedEx Cup standings, Chris Kirk and Billy Horschel, in the final pairing? And very much on top of their games, no less?

“It was pretty good (atmosphere). Some of the guys up there (in the chalets at the 17th and 18th holes) were having a little bit of fun, maybe at Billy’s expense a little bit. It’s nice having my hometown crowd behind me a little bit.”

Hometown crowd? Familiar faces? Heck, Kirk even had a special guest introducing him and the other competitors as they approached the 18th green. Chris Haack, longtime golf coach at the University of Georgia, took great pride when he got to announce Kirk, one of five former Bulldogs in the 29-player Tour Championship field. (The others being Russell Henley, Brendon Todd, Watson and Patrick Reed – although Reed ended his collegiate career with GRU Augusta.)

But all the hometown feel aside, what made the day a total success was the way in which Kirk and Horschel played. Like guys worthy of their spots atop the FedEx Cup standings. Sprinting to the finish line in style – Horschel birdied 13, Kirk birdied 15, Horschel birdied 16, Kirk birdied 17 – they signed for matching 4-under 66s to get into a share of the lead.

Nos. 1 and 2 are joint No. 1. How efficient.

“It was a comfortable pairing for both of us,” Kirk said, remembering back to high school when he first competed against Horschel and all those matchups when they played for the Bulldogs and Gators. “I’ve known him for a long time.”

With the FedEx Cup finale set up in a manner so that anyone ranked in the top five can win the overall $10m prize should he win the Tour Championship, Kirk and Horschel are thrilled with the way things began. While four players – Reed, Jason Day, Jim Furyk, and Watson – had come in with 67s, and four others – Cameron Tringale, Zach Johnson, Bill Haas, Matt Kuchar – signed for 68s, mostly it a day for players to offer respect for East Lake Golf Club.

“It was tough, but very fair,” Kirk said.

Kirk, 29, and Horschel, 27, may have traveled parallel routes in junior and collegiate golf, but they’ve been on the same road of late. Two weeks ago, Kirk seemingly had the Deutsche Bank Championship won when only one player could match him, Horschel. But when a badly-struck 6 iron landed in a hazard that fronts the 18th green at TPC Boston, Horschel was sorely disappointed and Kirk was a PGA Tour winner for the third time.

Any sympathy for Horschel was short-lived, however, because with an impressive bounce-back effort, he rolled to victory in last week’s BMW Championship outside of Denver. It was his second PGA Tour win and moved him to No. 2 in the FedEx Cup standings behind Kirk.

That Kirk and Horschel backed up their top billing with a combined effort of eight birdies and zero bogeys offers a sense of validation to the season-long points race. As does the fact that Watson, No. 3, shot 67 and No. 4 Rory McIlroy posted 69.

But Kirk and Horschel, of course, are in better position than the others.

The thing is, though, you’d hardly know they’re in similar positions because Kirk and Horschel are striking contrasts in personalities. A virtual flat-liner who hardly ever appears ruffled, Kirk will never be mistaken for Horschel’s excitable, jittery nature.

“I’m up-and-down the whole round of golf,” Horschel said. “(Kirk) looks like he’s a Fred Couples walking slow and nothing effects him. I walk slow, but as I’ve seen on the coverage last week, it looks like I’m sprinting around the greens and the golf course. (Our) emotional levels is a little bit different.”

But their position is so very similar. Win and take home a $10 million bonus, which is in addition to the $1.44 million you get for being low scorer at East Lake.

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