Russell Knox may have been the lesser-known sibling in his family – sister Diane, a radio presenter on Glasgow’s biggest commercial station, after all, has around 27,000 followers on social media site Twitter compared to his 6,000-odd – but not any more.
Scotland’s first winner of a World Golf Championship event following an impressive two-shot victory in the HSBC Champions at Sheshan International in Shanghai, the 30-year-old has become a global star, a status that will be rubber-stamped today when he is expected to be in the world’s top 30.
Claiming victory as a debutant in a WGC event, the sport’s biggest tournament after the four majors, he is the only player to do so since American Jeff Maggert won the first one – the Cadillac Match Play – in 1999. What a way to announce your arrival at the pinnacle of the sport.
Was it a mild surprise? Yes. A major one? Definitely not. Knox, after all, had been knocking at the door on the PGA Tour. Just as Shane Lowry had on the European Tour before the Irishman won the third WCG event of 2015, the Bridgestone Invitational, back in August.
Knox, who lives in Jacksonville Beach in Florida, having opted to stay on there after completing a degree in business management at Jacksonville University, has followed the Martin Laird path in the professional game.
He cut his teeth on what is now called the Web.com Tour, winning the 2011 Chiquita Classic on the second-tier circuit, where he also carded a 59 in the Boise Open two years ago. He was still outside the world’s top 200 at the end of that season but has gradually edged up the list since then and is now about to leap 50 spots to join the game’s elite.
In truth, regular followers of the PGA Tour will not be surprised in the slightest that Knox has entered the winner’s circle, beating both world No 2 Jordan Spieth and third-ranked Rory McIlroy in the process. He shared second place in the 2014 Honda Classic after forcing his way into a four-man play-off that also involved McIlroy. In the same event this season, Knox tied for third, matching a performance in the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open, the Las Vegas event won by Laird in 2009.
Counting the win in China, he’s now recorded nine top-ten finishes on the US circuit and finished 40th then 34th in the FedEx Cup over the last two seasons. In short, he had good reason to feel confident that a win was in the offing, even though it’s a heck of a bonus to land one quite so big.
“Winning is the ultimate goal,” he said in an interview on the Scottish Golf Union website just under a year ago. “My game has improved steadily over the last couple of years so winning is definitely closer. Of course, it’s extremely hard to finish first, but, yes, I think I am capable. I sure hope it happens in 2015.”
That it has when so many of the world’s top players were ready to pounce if the pressure got to him was hugely impressive. As was the fact he didn’t allow himself to be intimidated by the big-hitting Dustin Johnson, one of his playing partners in the final round. Concentrating on his own game, Knox came home in three-under 33 for a closing 68. With a 20-under-par total of 268, he won by two shots from American Kevin Kisner (70), with a last-round 62 from Danny Willett seeing him surge into a share of third spot with fellow Englishman Ross Fisher (68).
As he closed in on a victory that earned him a £900,000 pay-day, nudging his career earnings close to £4 million, Knox admitted he’d been thinking about Mike Flemming, his influential college golf coach who died from lung failure two years ago. “I thought about him throughout the day,” he said. “I thought about him on the 18th when I had to tap in to win and my eyes started tearing up. I owe him everything. He was my coach for eight years, he has been my inspiration and he taught me everything I know. It finally paid off.”
With a Scottish mother and American father, Knox could technically represent either Europe or the United States in the Ryder Cup. But, as a proud ambassador for Scottish golf, that’s not even up for debate. It’s a pity for him that, due to the fact he’s not currently a European Tour member, the massive 1,333,330 points he has picked up in Shanghai won’t count in the battle to be on Darren Clarke’s team for next September’s match at Hazeltine.
However, Knox will surely now take up that membership for the start of the 2016 campaign at the beginning of next month and, with all the majors and WGCs secured, he can use this success as a springboard to challenge for automatic qualification or, alternatively, keep catching the captain’s eye.
Willett’s rousing finish, meanwhile, has made the Race to Dubai very interesting indeed. The Yorkshireman had trailed McIlroy by 400,000 points going into this event but now there is just 74,000 between them, despite the fact McIlroy closed with a 67 to tie for seventh place. Willett is also staying on in Shanghai to play in the penultimate event in the race, the BMW Masters, but McIlroy is resting up for the final leg the following week, the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai.
Marc Warren may be heading into those two events low in confidence, but at least he was able to retain his sense of humour about finishing last on this occasion. In praising compatriot Knox while at the same time poking fun at himself, he wrote on Twitter: “Between Russell and myself, the Scots had the field surrounded!”