Interview: Russell Knox, up-and-coming Scots golfer, on joining the PGA Tour and making it to the top

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You may not know about Russell Knox but the Scot has earned a spot on the world’s top tour, writes John Huggan

As a golfing nation, we’ve surely had our moments to savour this year. Martin Laird’s breakthrough victory on the PGA Tour at Bay Hill leaps to mind. So does Catriona Matthew’s immense contribution to Europe’s Solheim Cup victory over the United States. And former Open champion Paul Lawrie won again on the European Tour – a long overdue victory for one so talented – at the Andalucian Open. But there’s another, less high-profile son of Caledonia well deserving of our acclaim.

Step forward Russell Knox.

The product of an American father and Scottish mother (“but I feel 100 per cent Scottish”) this 26-year-old native of Inverness has performed with more than a little distinction on the Nationwide Tour – America’s Challenge Tour equivalent – during 2011. Going into the season-ending Tour Championship that will climax today in Charleston, South Carolina, Knox sits tenth on the money-list. The top-25 earners are guaranteed promotion to the PGA Tour next year. In other words, the Scot already has his place on the world’s biggest and most lucrative circuit all sewn up.

Perhaps most impressive is the fact that Knox has, over the course of a career that has so far been anything but conventional, done things very much his own way.

“During my last year at high school the thought occurred that a golf scholarship in the States might be a good idea,” he says. “I’m not sure why! So I looked at a few different schools and settled on Jacksonville. I wanted to go somewhere the weather is better than Inverness. So Florida seemed like an obvious choice.

“At the time I felt like I was a pretty good player. But, looking back, I wasn’t nearly as good as I thought I was. I was lucky though. The college I attended – Jacksonville University – wasn’t one of the top golf programmes in the country. So I wasn’t playing against guys significantly better than I was and I wasn’t getting beaten to death playing really hard courses. That helped my confidence.”

Back home each summer, Knox played in some of the bigger amateur events in the UK without much distinction.

He can recall a “fourth or fifth” place finish in the Scottish Youths Championship and “eleventh, I think” in a Scottish Stroke-play Championship at Royal Aberdeen. But the undoubted highlight of his pre-pro career was being part of the six-strong Scottish side at the 2006 European Youths Team Championship in Spain.

“My team-mates included Lloyd Saltman, Scott Henry, Paul O’Hara and Jordan Finlay,” recalls Knox. “So we had a good side and, looking back, that was maybe the most important week of my golfing life so far. I was fortunate to be selected and felt like I was the worst player of the six. Even if I wasn’t, I certainly believed I was the worst.

“I remember thinking to myself that, if I didn’t significantly improve, I might as well take up tennis.

“I knew that I had a choice to make. Either I don’t take the game that seriously and find another way to make a living. Or I really get stuck in and see how good I can get. So that was a real turning point for me. Since then I’ve dedicated my whole life to golf. I stopped going out. I began working out in the gym. I started eating better. I got myself a coach. I did everything I could to improve.”

Knox’s professional career began amongst the anonymity of the Hooters Tour – division three or four in the States. And success wasn’t long in coming.

“I was third in my first event and ninth in my second,” he recalls. “So I played well right away and was able to fund myself as I moved onwards and upwards. That was so important. A lot of guys get beat up right at the start and have to leave the game.”

Knox’s next break came in April of this year, when he travelled across country to California and made it through Monday qualifying for the Nationwide Tour’s Fresh Express Classic. Even better, by the following Sunday he was $52,800 richer, his prize for a second-place tie.

“That was enough money to make me a ‘special temporary member’ and get me into the rest of the tournaments,” he says. “So that was huge for me.

“The Nationwide Tour is not so far removed from the PGA Tour. Everything about it is first-class and the standard of play is extremely high. So winning is hard. In fact, I’d say that, if you play well enough to win on this tour then performed the same on the PGA Tour, you’d probably win there as well. The depth is almost as good.”

Speaking of winning, Knox’s maiden Nationwide victory came three months later, at the Chiquita Classic during the week of the Open Championship and, ironically, seven days after what was the biggest disappointment of his season.

“I had written to ask for an invitation to the Scottish Open,” he says. “To play in that event would have been great for me, given that it was played ten minutes from where I used to live. I knew it was a long shot in the week before the Open. I’m sure they had some big names needing spots but, being a local, I thought it was worth a try. And in the end I didn’t even get a reply.

“That was a little disappointing and left a bit of a bad taste. It would have been nice if someone had taken the time to write back. I’d love to play next year though. It would be the highlight of my season. To play at home in front of all my friends would be fantastic. So I’ll try and qualify for the Open and see if I can also get into the Scottish Open. I’d definitely give up a start on the PGA Tour to play at Castle Stuart.”

On a happier note, Knox’s win did provoke some mail, namely a letter from one Arnold Palmer, whose company happened to design the tournament venue, the TPC River’s Bend in Maineville, Ohio.

“I must have read it through 20 times before it sunk in,” says Knox with a laugh. “Arnold wished me good luck for next year and said how well I had done. I already have it framed and will cherish it forever. Hopefully he’ll invite me to his tournament next year. I know I’ll be asking.”

Looking forward to 2012, things aren’t going to get any easier for Knox. As a PGA Tour rookie and therefore low on the exemption list, he will, at least initially, be restricted in where and when he can play. He’s realistic though.

“Those who ‘graduate’ from the Nationwide Tour usually get at least 20 events the following year,” he explains. “But a good beginning can get you into a few more. If I get 25 starts, I feel like that should be enough for me to keep my card. If I can’t get it done from that many events, then I probably haven’t played well enough.”

Still, if his past history is any guide, Russell Knox will find a way to get it done.