Martin Dempster: The ever-improving form of Russell Knox

After winning his home event in thrilling style, Rory McIlroy, left, shakes hands with Scotlands Russell Knox. Picture: Getty
After winning his home event in thrilling style, Rory McIlroy, left, shakes hands with Scotlands Russell Knox. Picture: Getty
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It was only right that the plaudits went to the tournament host in the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open at the weekend. After all, the two fairway wood shots from Rory McIlroy which set up a birdie and eagle respectively at the 16th and 18th holes on the Palmer Course at The K Club in the final round were probably the sweetest and most decisive blows in quick succession the game has witnessed for some time.

At long last – if you consider six months to be a long time without tasting victory, that is – McIlroy had returned to winning ways and boy did it feel good for the 27-year-old for that to have happened on home soil and in front of a fervent home support. It added to earlier career victories in the Irish Boys, Irish Youths and a brace of Irish Amateur Championships, so no wonder he was a tad emotional.

Let’s hope the four-time major winner kicks on from here as far as his 2016 campaign is concerned. The schedule will soon see huge events coming thick and fast and, if this was a sign of Rory leaving some spluttering form behind him and being close to finding that extra gear that landed two majors and a WGC in a blistering three-event burst two summers ago, then the sport is in for a treat over the next two-a-half months. Jason Day could also have a challenge on his hands for that world No 1 title quicker than many perhaps expected.

That it took two flashes of McIlroy magic, though, to stop Russell Knox upstaging him was more proof, if indeed any is actually required now, that the Scottish No 1 has established himself as a world-class performer. His win in the WGC-HSBC Champions in Shanghai last November, of course, was an indication that the 30-year-old could mix it with the big boys and come out on top, but the way he has performed since then has arguably been even more impressive.

Knox has now come close three times to backing up that breakthrough victory, having also finished second in the OHL Classic at Mayakoba and the RBC Heritage on the PGA Tour. In addition, he’s given a decent account of himself in the opening two WGCs this year and also managed a top-20 finish in the Players’ Championship despite an 80 in the third round at Sawgrass. He’s sitting third in the FedEx Cup standings, which, to put into perspective, is 29 spots higher than McIlroy and nine better than Sergio Garcia after the Spaniard’s weekend win in the AT&T Byron Nelson event in Texas.

On the back of his latest eye-catching effort, Knox is up five places to a career-best 23rd in the world rankings. In jumping above Paul Casey, he’s now third behind 
Masters champion Danny Willett and Justin Rose, the world Nos 9 and 10 respectively, on the list to make the Great Britain team for the Olympics. Whether he can catch either of them before the 
cut-off for Rio remains to be seen, but he certainly has a chance to make up more ground on Rose this week.

That’s because a back injury has forced the Englishman out of the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth, where Knox will make his debut in the European Tour’s flagship event as the second-highest ranked player in the field after Willett, with McIlroy having opted to give it a miss on this occasion as he tries to pace himself in preparation for those title tilts looming on the horizon.

A year ago, the Surrey set wouldn’t have given Knox’s name a second glance as they skimmed the start sheet over a glass of Pimms, yet it’s testament to how far he’s come in a relatively short space of time that he is one of the event’s star attractions on this occasion. That being the case, it almost goes without saying that the Jacksonville Beach-based player is well and truly in the frame for the Ryder Cup later in the year. He’s now up to 17th on the world points list and 32nd on the European points list in the battle to make Darren Clarke’s team for Hazeltine. Getting their under his own steam is still going to take at least two or three more big performances. With each passing week, though, he seems to be giving the European captain another nudge.

He got into contention in the Irish Open, for instance, despite opening with a 75 and having to play the last three rounds with a borrowed driver after cracking the face of his own one. He also overturned a four-shot overnight deficit to get his nose in front of McIlroy before stinging the host into something special. Opportunity does indeed Knox over the coming few months for Russell.