Even now, 12 months on, it’s not really sunk in. “I still can’t believe I won, to be honest,” admitted Russell Knox in recalling his stunning victory in the HSBC Champions event in Shanghai, a triumph that saw him secure a place in the record books as the first Scot to claim a World Golf Championship.
There are a number of reasons why the Sheshan success continues to keep Knox having to pinch himself. For starters, he only got into the event as a late reserve. There was also the fact he’d never played in any of the WGCs before. Oh, and he thought the golf course might have been a bit on the tough side for him.
That he shot 20-under-par to leave a high-calibre chasing pick that included most of the game’s big guns – Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth, Patrick Reed and Rickie Fowler – trailing in his wake made it one of those sporting fairytales and, at times, Knox still feels it was all just a dream.
“I keep going over it in my head,” he added. “The superstars I was playing against and the course, which is hard, and I can’t believe I got the job done. I also got in at the last minute then we had to get our visas rushed through to get into China. I ran around in a practice round then didn’t even hit a shot or putt on the Wednesday. So to go out and finish on top was a pretty amazing story.”
It was no flash in the pan, of course. The Invernesian backed up that success by claiming the Travelers Championship on the PGA Tour in August and is starting to feel comfortable as a world top 20 player. “I can stand on putting green here and look around and be like, ‘I’ve beaten all these guys over 72 holes’ and that’s a huge confidence boost,” he admitted.
All four of this year’s major winners – Danny Willett, Johnson, Henrik Stenson and Jimmy Walker – are in this week’s field. So, too, are eight of the world’s top 10, the absentees being the game’s top-ranked player, Jason Day, and its fourth stongest force, Spieth.Add in a posse of players from this year’s Ryder Cup, including Brooks Koepka, Ryan Moore, Thomas Pieters and Rafa Cabrera Bello, and Knox certainly has a tough task on his hands in a bid to become a repeat champion on Sunday.
That feat was achieved by American Justin Thomas last weekend in the PGA Tour’s CIMB Classic in Kuala Lumper, where Knox was in contention heading into the final round before slipping to joint 10th. “It is a true honour to be back at the site of my first PGA Tour and European Tour victory,” he said. “And, after watching Justin Thomas defend his title on Sunday, it made me want to get here even quicker to see if I can do the same thing this week.
“I had a chance to win going into the final round before getting outplayed on Sunday. But my game feels good and I’m looking forward to giving it a go this week. Last year my winning formula consisted of straight driving, great wedges and good putting. I wedged the ball beautifully and made a ton of putts. So, I just need keep the ball in play off tee again this week and be aggressive with my irons.”
Realistically, can he do it again? “Yeah,” he replied ahead of a first round tomorrow in the company of Fowler, the 2015 Scottish Open champion, and rejuvenated Englishman Paul Casey. “Last year I had obviously no expectations. I was just thrilled to be playing in my first WGC event. I have to look at it the same way again. I can’t expect to go out and win again. But, at the same time, I know that I am capable, so I just need to go out and enjoy my golf, be aggressive and try to smile.”