Beneath a sunny, light blue sky dotted with clouds, white underbellies turning grey with rain, Russell Knox, deep in concentration, lines up a 15-foot putt on a butter-smooth green on one of the most beautiful golf courses in the world, TPC Sawgrass. Behind him Spanish moss sways from the branches of lofty live oaks, in the distance groundskeepers are busy making sure every blade is in place and each bush, tree and flower is in peak condition for THE PLAYERS Championship starting May 10, when tens of thousands of fans descend upon the course for the tournament that has come to be known as golf’s “fifth major.”
Knox misses the putt. Mumbling to himself, he lines up another shot and doubles his focus, inscrutable below a baseball cap. It’s only a photo shoot, a quick series of pictures of a PGA golfer putting on his home course, but no matter: He’s determined to make it.
Thirteen years stateside have softened his Scottish brogue a bit and four years on tour have given him a certain reserve, but Russell Knox remains far more accessible than one would imagine of a PGA golfer currently placed fourth in the competition for the FedEx Cup. Days earlier, he’d finished seven strokes under par — four he made up with a closing round of 67 — at the RBC Heritage tournament in Hilton Head, South Carolina, earning him a second-place finish and a half-million-dollar purse. One might imagine him glowing with triumph, but on the green, he’s just a lean, crisply dressed blond lining up a shot, his mind turned inward, tracking the line to the cup.
An egret flies past, its call a harsh bray that punctures the smooth rumble of the far-off mowers. The distraction makes no difference; this time the ball goes in. Knox nods quickly to himself. For him, every shot is a chance to improve.
Earlier, en route to the green, a groundskeeper paused to congratulate him on the tournament. “Thanks, mate,” Knox shouted back with amiable familiarity, a far cry from the prima donna behavior for which several of his contemporaries are known.
Drawn to the Florida climate, the utter perfection of the course, which also serves as PGA headquarters, many professionals have made TPC Sawgrass their home course. But the 30-year-old Jacksonville University alum is clearly something of a favorite around the lush fairways and greens. Everyone seems to know — and like — Russell Knox.
Three years ago, Folio Weekly Magazine interviewed Knox along with Nick Flanagan for a story about local golfers on the cusp of breaking out of the Web.com Tour and onto the PGA Tour (“Swing Shift,” Sept. 18, 2013, folioweekly.com/Swing-Shift,7225). Flanagan didn’t make it, but Knox got onto the tour, where he’s been gaining ground and shaving strokes ever since.
“To be honest, other than my schedule I get to play, nothing’s changed. I’m still the same dorky person, living the same life, just getting to do it with a smile on my face,” Knox says later in the men’s locker room at the clubhouse, where he led FWM with a quick, disarming, “We’re probably not supposed to be in here. But it’s OK.”
Russell Knox has had a lot to smile about these past three years. Two years ago, he married his longtime love, Andrea Hernandez, a former professional tennis player whom he met and wooed when he was a mere cart boy at Marsh Landing Country Club. Playing on the tour hasn’t kept the couple from spending plenty of time together, however, as the Knoxes often travel as a team. And, while getting married can prove to be a hindrance to maintaining the level of commitment that it takes to be a successful professional athlete, Knox has the benefit of having a partner who not only understands what it takes to compete at the top level, she insists upon it.
“She gets the work ethic needed, the amount of time that needs to be put in … Actually, she complains if I don’t practice. She’s the best and she’s really been a huge factor to my success,” he says.
All that hard work and team effort is paying off. In November, Knox earned one of the rarest, most coveted titles in golf: PGA Tour winner.
It was far from a likely win. Knox wasn’t even supposed to play in the World Golf Championship-HSBC Champions; mere days before the tournament, J.B. Holmes withdrew and Knox, an alternate, got in. Even then, it wasn’t certain that he could secure a visa to travel to Shanghai, China, in time for the tournament. Luckily, his wife, after spending an entire day at the Chinese embassy in Malaysia, managed to gain entry for Knox, his caddie and herself. But at the last minute, a bureaucratic defect delayed his caddie another day, so Knox wouldn’t have anyone to carry his bag in the practice round which, due to issues with his back, wasn’t much of an option. No matter — his wife filled in as his practice round caddie, which Knox says turned out to be the “winning recipe.”
“She was bag carrier and lead complainer.” Knox laughs and quickly adds, “She didn’t complain at all … She’s a trooper.”
Heading into the back nine on the final day of the tournament, Knox broke out of a five-way tie with back-to-back birdies that put him in the lead, which he held with a perfect finish on the last seven holes. After 92 consecutive PGA tournaments without a win, when his ball went into the cup on the 18th, Knox officially joined the ranks of Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson and Bubba Watson, who have all won at the HSBC Champions.
“I just kind of threw my arms up in the air and looked up. I had joy and excitement, but it was kind of a relief as well, because I always thought I was going to win, I thought I was going to be good enough, but you never really know until it happens … When I knocked the putt in, I was, like, ‘I can’t believe I’ve done it.’ It was just a big ahh,” he says.
Winning a tournament brought more than a $1.4 million paycheck. More than gaining the prestige of being a PGA Tour winner, it was validation that, at 30, Knox’s game is only getting better.
Since then, he’s had two close calls, coming in second at the OHL Classic in Quintanaroo, Mexico, the week after his win, and narrowly missing the win at Hilton Head in April.
Winning in China guaranteed Knox entry to all the majors, including The Masters at Augusta National, the tournament every golf wannabe dreams of playing. From the moment he drove down Magnolia Lane, playing Augusta, which he says is “spooky how cool it is,” was an otherworldly experience.
“The weirdest part of the week was Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday when you’re practicing, there’s 50,000 people watching you … that doesn’t happen on a normal week,” he says. “I guess another strange thing is growing up, watching the tournament, and then you’re actually being there, walking the holes, hitting the shots that the legends have hit before. You have to pinch yourself: I’m on the 12th hole at Augusta National.”
Knox didn’t make the cut, but the experience left him with an unmistakable hunger.
“I was disappointed I didn’t play the way I wanted to, but it’s all a good learning experience; I’ll definitely be better next time.”
Getting better is a constant struggle for professional athletes; Knox says he, like everyone else, is always looking for that edge, for the next thing that can take his game to a higher level. For him, it’s continuing with the core team of professionals, friends and family who have helped him get here — like Lynn Marriott and Pia Nilsson of Vision54 — while adding a few more along the way. He’s recently started working with a physio trainer, doing massage and manual training to counterbalance the beating golfers’ bodies take from swinging clubs over and over and over. He’s also begun practicing with another local PGA golfer, Ramon Bescansa.
“It’s amazing how many people can contribute to the final product. I’ve been very grateful. I’ve had some great people in my life to help me,” Knox says.
Traveling the world for 30 weeks a year and having the benefit of a full team that includes an agent and numerous professionals is a far cry from the three years Knox spent on the mini-tour circuit after he graduated from JU in 2007. On the mini-tours, players travel together, share hotel rooms and spend time together like a family. He clearly relishes being on the PGA Tour, but his sincerity is apparent when Knox says that there’s a small part of him that misses the old days on the mini-tour, when it was nothing to beat a guy in a tournament, then go out for beers afterward.
“Then on the Web.com, a little less of that happened, and then on the PGA Tour, it seems like that never happens, so it’s very different. Those were great days.”
Surrounded by dark wood and history in the men’s locker room at TPC Sawgrass, a space that has been occupied by every superstar in the game, Knox seems completely comfortable but not quite satisfied with his lot in life, at least not yet. He is the kind of man who holds himself to such high standards that no one could talk him out of giving himself a hard time if he felt he deserved it. Though he’s achieved more in these few years than most professional athletes will in a lifetime, Russell Knox still wants more, still feels as though he has something to prove, not just to the world or his loved ones, or other golfers on the tour, but to himself.
He’s got a win in his pocket, so one would think that Knox could finally relax a bit and, in a way, he has — this year, he’s taking off for three weeks for the first time since he’s been on the PGA Tour, the prospect of which seems to make him a bit uncomfortable — but he still has this relentless drive to get better, to not win
just another tournament, but to win a major, to be the best in the world. It’s the drive that every successful athlete must have to compete at that level, but it doesn’t just happen. It must be cultivated and controlled.
“On the PGA Tour, you’ve got some pretty big egos, pretty big stars. Sometimes it can be pretty intimidating. The challenge for everyone is to stand next to these stars — big, strong, tall people — and feel like you’re able to beat them. If you don’t feel like you’re able to do that … you’ve got no chance of doing that. You’ve got to stand there on the first tee and feel like, ‘Yeah, I can do this.’”
You can see Russell Knox and the rest of the field play at THE PLAYERS Championship at TPC Sawgrass May 10-15. Tickets are at pgatour.com/tournaments/the-players-championship/tickets.html.