Knox goes from cart boy to World Golf Championship winner

Russell Knox
Russell Knox of Scotland celebrates on the 18th hole after the final round of the HSBC Champions golf tournament at the Sheshan International Golf Club in Shanghai, China Sunday, Nov. 8, 2015. (AP Photo)

SHANGHAI (AP) — Russell Knox would appear to have all the ingredients to succeed in golf.

But that would be skimming over the details.

Knox grew up in Scotland, the home of golf, and he once competed for his country in a youth tournament, where he first saw Rory McIlroy. He came to Florida to play college golf and was among the top players on his team for four years. As for his wife? He met her at Marsh Landing Country Club in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida.

Now for those details.

“She was the tennis pro,” Knox said. “And I was the cart boy.”

He smiled at the memory Sunday at Sheshan International as he signed flags and caps to commemorate his two-shot victory in the HSBC Champions, making him the first player to win a World Golf Championship in his debut since the series began in 1999.

The victory was not so much a long time coming for the 30-year-old Knox as much as it was a long journey that was more about belief and hard work than raw talent.

It took him five years just to reach the PGA Tour, and he lasted only one season before having to fight his way back.

Progress was slow, but at least he was moving forward.

Asked about his amateur days growing up in Inverness, he rubbed his forehead and said, “Oh, this might be hard. I wasn’t very good.”

It was at a European youth event in Spain where he saw McIlroy. After hearing the sound the ball made off McIlroy’s club, Knox knew he had his work cut out for him. Through a recruiting service, he landed a scholarship at Jacksonville University. The coach was Mike Flemming, who died of lung failure in the spring of 2014, and Knox choked up when he thought about the man who “taught me everything I know” about golf.

“I didn’t realize how bad a golfer I was when I came to the U.S.,” Knox said. “What I mean by that was if I went to a bigger school, I would have been completely overwhelmed and devastated how good the other players were in this country. Going to a small school like Jacksonville University, where I was the No. 1 and No. 2 player, allowed me to play every tournament.

“The last time I checked, if you’re not playing in tournaments, you’re not improving.”

And he almost didn’t get in this one. Knox was in Malaysia for the CIMB Classic when he learned that J.B. Holmes had pulled out of the HSBC Champions and he was in. One problem: he needed a Chinese visa, and he had a tee time Friday. His wife, Andrea, filled out forms and got them to the consulate in Kuala Lumpur. They weren’t approved until Monday afternoon, flew overnight to Shanghai, and his wife carried his bag in his lone practice round because his caddie was still waiting on his visa.

The rest of the week was a blur.

Perhaps the smartest move all week was not finishing the third round in the dark Saturday, choosing to get up Sunday morning to play the par-5 18th. He hit wedge to 3 feet for birdie to tie Kevin Kisner for the lead, and then he kept his poise during what had the feel of David vs. Goliath.

Knox and Dustin Johnson started to pull away early. Knox chose not to watch Johnson for the front nine to avoid getting intimidated by Johnson’s power, though he couldn’t ignore that he was some 50 yards behind in the fairway. No matter. He hit fairways and fired longer irons into the green to stay ahead.

The only sign of a struggle was missing a 3-foot birdie putt on No. 8 and making bogey on the next hole to fall into a five-way tie.

He thought back to the wall outside the clubhouse that featured winners of the HSBC Champions and other World Golf Championships.

“They’re superstars,” Knox said. “I kept saying, ‘If I want to win tournaments and be like a star, you’ve got to do it. In the past, I think I was afraid to take up the space. I was smaller and curled away and was scared to win. The last couple of years have been big for me gaining experience. Someone once told me to go out there and take up your space, and I think it slowly helped me realize that I’m better than I think I am.”

He hit 8-iron to 10 feet for birdie on No. 10. He hit 7-iron to 18 feet for birdie on No. 11. No one got closer than two shots the rest of the way, and a 12-foot birdie on the 16th effectively clinched it. When he tapped in for a par and a 68, Knox raised his arms, closed his eyes and lifted his head back.

“I don’t know if I ever would have guessed I would have been on the PGA Tour, winning a huge tournament like this,” Knox said. “But for some bizarre reason, ever since I was kid, I always felt in my bones that I was going to be a professional.”

And for some reason, he always thought whenever he got that first PGA Tour win, it was going to be a big one.

This was plenty big.

He beat the likes of Johnson, McIlroy and Jordan Spieth. He won a World Golf Championship. He’s going to the Masters. He’s now No. 31 in the world.

“This is going to take a long time to sink in,” he said.

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