He may have earned a place in the history books as the first Scot to win a World Golf Championship event but Russell Knox reckons that Shanghai success last November will be topped if he can become a home-town hero next month.
“This is it for me,” declared the 30-year-old of returning to Inverness, where he grew up before heading to college in the United States then setting up home there, for the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open at Castle Stuart from 7-10 July.
“This is one of the biggest tournaments I could ever play. To come home to Inverness and play as a professional for the first time is something I thought could never happen, so I can’t wait. The atmosphere is going to be just amazing and it will feel like playing in a major.”
Knox’s appetite for competing in front of a home crowd was whetted recently when he played with Rory McIlroy in the final round of the Irish Open as the tournament host produced two moments of magic late on, having trailed the Scot with three holes to play, to record a popular victory at The K Club.
“Playing in Ireland with Rory kind of made me look forward to Castle Stuart because he was the heavy home favourite with the crowd, so coming to Inverness I’m hoping I’ll have the same amount of backing,” added Knox, the world No 24. “Obviously the crowd will be supporting all the Scottish players. But it would be nice if they were cheering me a little bit louder, as the local boy.”
In 2013, when the Scottish Open was last staged at the picturesque Highland venue, the Jacksonville Beach-based player reluctantly turned down a sponsor’s invitation due to the fact he was still trying to establish a solid footing on the PGA Tour.
Having achieved that, he was able to play in the event at Royal Aberdeen and Gullane in the past two years, finishing 27th and 10th, and now can’t wait to lock horns with the likes of Phil Mickelson, Henrik Stenson, Graeme McDowell, Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer on his home patch.
“I wanted to play there so badly in 2013, but I was struggling to keep my card in the US at the time, so I had a horrible decision to make,” recalled the 30-year-old. “Ultimately it has worked out fine [as reflected by the fact he is currently sitting fourth behind Jason Day, Adam Scott and Jordan Spieth in this season’s FedEx Cup]. But, at the time, I was going back and forth and, when I made up my mind, I was still 100 per cent convinced that I’d made the wrong decision not to come and play. I’m very happy that I managed to play well and it’s taken care of itself now.
“If I can win at Castle Stuart, it will be the biggest win of my career. Of course winning the WGC event in China was massive for my career. But everyone dreams of winning in their home town and I’d love that to come true for me. Even just to play is going to be amazing. But, if I can play well and lift the trophy at the end, that would be a huge bonus.”
The stunning site on which Castle Stuart now sits hadn’t been discovered by Mark Parsinen when Knox was growing up in Inverness. He cut his golfing teeth at Nairn Dunbar, where he returned last summer to be presented with an honorary membership, and still cherishes that “big part” of his childhood.
“I was basically raised on links golf and I think that helped me improve because there’s such an importance to be able to hit all shots. It’s important to have that versatility in your game,” said Knox. “My parents used to drop me off at the course with my friends and we’d play 36 holes, often 64 holes a day until we ran out of daylight, We’d just keep going.
“Sometimes we’d go back out in the afternoon with just three clubs each and have a match trying to outscore each other with those three. I miss those days because back then you were just playing golf purely for the joy of the game and your love of it. Of course, I still enjoy competing, but these days when I get home after a long stretch of being away I don’t play golf too much.”
Five-times major champion and, of course, 2013 Scottish Open winner Mickelson will be the star attraction at Castle Stuart, especially as compatriot Rickie Fowler has opted not to defend his title due to the summer schedule this year becoming compressed as a result of the Olympics.
It remains to be seen if Mickelson, a huge Castle Stuart fan, will be joined by any other Americans on this occasion, but Knox, who is playing in the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational the previous week as opposed to the French Open, is ready to play his part in selling the £3.25 million event over the next few weeks.
“There hasn’t been really any PGA Tour or American players who have asked me about the Scottish Open. But, if I was able to encourage people to play, I would, as I speak very highly of the event and the venue, which is spectacular,” he said.
“A lot of people have their own ideas about travelling over to the Open. It can be complicated for them. But I will try my best to get those who are sitting on the fence to come and play in the tournament.”
It seems strange that the likes of Mickelson, who played in all three of the Scottish Opens at Castle Stuart from 2011-13, knows the course better than the local hero, who has yet to play in the heat of battle. That’s a hurdle will have to overcome, as will the additional pressure that comes with expectation. Can he handle that?
“I think I will feed off the pressure,” he insisted during a teleconference, with Knox speaking from LaGuardia airport in New York as the Scottish golfing media looked out from the Castle Stuart clubhouse towards the Kessock Bridge on a sun-kissed evening in the Highlands. “Golf is a pressure game. It’s whoever can deal with that pressure the best – they normally win. It’s not a comfortable feeling. But playing professional golf is hard. That’s why so few people do it.
“So yes, there will be pressure on me. That’s what I’ve always wanted, to have the chance to win tournaments – particularly in Scotland. I look forward to that. I feel like I play better on the bigger stage. I loved playing with Rory and [Masters champion] Danny Willett in the last group in Ireland and I feel I did pretty well. I love feeling the pressure, even if it is an uncomfortable feeling at times. I’ll go there [to Castle Stuart] and give it a crack.”