Russell Knox, the sole Scot in the field, sets out in Miami today trying to become just the second player after Tiger Woods to claim consecutive World Golf Championship wins and the first to achieve the feat in his opening two appearances in a set of events ranked second only to the majors.
“I guess I’m the defending champion,” quipped Knox, referring to his victory in the HSBC Champions, the last of the four WGCs in 2015, in Shanghai in November as he prepared for the Cadillac Championship on the Blue Monster at Doral.
While the odds may be stacked against Knox as he attempts to emulate Woods, the 30-year-old is relishing his opportunity to be on the same stage as the world’s top players once again, having finished ahead of both Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy to claim that success in China.
World No 1 Spieth and third-ranked McIlroy are joined on this occasion by the man sandwiched between them, Australian Jason Day, as the game’s so-called “New Big 3” lock horns for the first time this season.
“It’s a thrill to be here,” added Knox, who heads into the event sitting 33rd in the world and fourth on the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup standings. “It’s my first time at Doral, and this is where everyone wants to be playing, in these top tournaments, so to get another crack at it is great.”
The Florida-based Invernesian has Korean Be An, the BMW PGA champion, and Australian Jordan Zunic for company in the opening two rounds at the Donald Trump-owned venue, where the US presidential hopeful is expected to pay a customary visit to the event on Sunday.
“I’ve never played here before, but I’ve heard a lot of good things about it,” continued Knox. “I know there are a lot of water holes, but I played last week [in the Honda Classic at PGA National in Palm Beach Gardens] where there was a lot too, so I’m used to the stress of water.”
These are heady times for Europeans in the WGCs, with the win for Knox last autumn having come on the back of earlier 2015 victories by Rory McIlroy (Cadillac Match Play) and Shane Lowry (Bridgestone Invitational). Should this title also fall to one of 19 European players in the field, it will be the first time the continent has held all four of the prestigious prizes at the same time.
“European golf is so strong, top to bottom now,” acknowledged Knox, who took out his European Tour membership this year in a bid to make Darren Clarke’s Ryder Cup team and is set to make appearances in the Irish Open, BMW PGA Championship and the Scottish Open as part of that quest. “There are so many guys doing great, particularly the English guys, so it is nice to chuck a Scot in there, too.”
As things stand – and the position is unlikely to change – Knox will only have one compatriot, former winner Sandy Lyle, for company when he makes his Masters debut in five weeks’ time.
If there is one person Knox would have wanted to be at Augusta National for that, it’s his late coach, Mike Flemming, and the Scot has come up with a nice honour by asking Flemming’s son, Neal, to caddie for him in the Par-3 event.
“He was so passionate about helping me,” Knox said of his head golf coach at Jacksonville University in an interview with PGATOUR.COM. “If we were working on something and I did it correctly, he would start yelling and jump up and down and say, ‘That’s it, that’s it.’ He would go home and think about things we needed to work on. He was so invested in helping me improve. I was so lucky to have him.
“He could talk your ear off. He was the best storyteller, the best joke-teller to ever have lived. He had all of these stories that amazed me and wowed me. He told me it [joining the golf team at Jacksonville University] wasn’t going to be glamorous, but if I worked hard I would get better. And that’s what happened.”
Bubba Watson, who has risen to world No 4 on the back of his recent win in the Northern Trust Open in Los Angeles, fancies his chances more this week than either the US Open at Oakmont or the Open Championship at Royal Troon later in the year.
“I’m never changing my game for a certain tournament,” insisted the big-hitting left-hander, who has missed the cut in those two events for the last two years. “I play 20 tournaments a year, so that means 20 different swings and thoughts I’ve got to figure out.
“I love the game of golf over in Scotland, links golf, true links golf. I love it. But one week, going over for one week is hard for me to get where I need to be to perform at a high level.The British Open, really it bugs me a little bit just because the imagination, I haven’t been able to perform all four days. But truthfully, if we ended right today and Bubba could never play golf again, I think my career is better than I ever dreamed it could be.”