An eye-opening trip to Spain that showed he had to “improve or give up”, heading somewhere warmer than Scotland when he was choosing a university to combine golf and studies and the guidance of a “colourful coach who told crazy stories”.
According to new Scottish No 1 Russell Knox, they are the main ingredients in helping him become the first player from the game’s cradle to win a World Golf Championship event, the game’s biggest tournaments after the four majors.
The 30-year-old’s two-shot victory in the HSBC Champions in Shanghai on Sunday was the finest moment for Scottish men’s golf since Paul Lawrie won the Open Championship at Carnoustie in 1999.
It is likely to see Knox confirmed in 31st position when the latest world rankings are published 24 hours later than normal this morning – quite an achievement for someone who thought he was out of his depth when he played for Scotland in the 2006 European Youths’ Championship in Spain.
“That was the turning point in my golfing career,” declared Knox, who played his golf at Nairn Dunbar at the time. “I realised there how good my team-mates were (Lloyd Saltman, for example) and players from all the other countries.
“It was an eye-opener for me – improve a lot or give up. I rededicated myself and worked harder. I worked with coaches to help me, started working out, worked on the mental game. I’m so glad I went to Spain and struggled. I wouldn’t be where I am now if I didn’t play on that team.”
Another key moment was making the right decision when, having decided to concentrate on golf after turning his back on football, he had options for US colleges.
“I had a small list to choose from, but had no idea how big or small some of the schools were or how good or bad their teams were, so I started narrowing it down,” he said on how he’d ended up at Jacksonville University. “I was like, ‘cold, out; cold, out; Florida, ooohhh. When you grow up in Scotland, you’re cold pretty much your whole life, so going to a school where the sun shone was my No 1 priority.”
While the favourable weather conditions helped Knox see his game come on leaps and bounds, he also admits that at Jacksonville he struck gold with his golf coach.
“Mike Flemming was the most colourful character in the world,” said Knox of the man he was thinking about on Sunday, having lost him to lung failure two years ago. “He just wowed me over with his crazy stories and I knew that it was the perfect match for me.”
With Martin Laird also having tasted success on the PGA Tour after going to college in the States then deciding to base himself there, there’s growing evidence in favour of that particular option being best for young Scottish amateurs rather than staying at home.
“I was 15 when I decided that I wanted to come to the US to play in college and it was the best decision I’ve ever made,” insisted Knox. “Especially going to a small school like Jacksonville University as it allowed me to play all four years and, if you’re not playing in tournaments, you’re not improving. If I’d gone to a bigger school, University of Florida or University of Georgia or somewhere that had a great golf programme, I would have been completely overwhelmed and devastated how good other players were in the US. There’s a lot of guys that I grew up with in Scotland that didn’t come to the US to play golf in college and they haven’t made it on the European Tour. For some reason, my age group didn’t really achieve. I think, if some of the players had come to the US and played in college, they would have become better players. I would recommend it to anyone because the system is incredible. You’re playing against the best players, learning how to travel and just growing up as a person.”
Knox certainly grew up as a golfer on Sunday, when he held off some of the world’s best players to earn a place in Scottish golfing folklore. “I don’t know if I ever would have guessed I would have been on the PGA Tour winning a huge tournament,” he admitted. “But for some bizarre reason, ever since I was a kid, I always felt in my bones that I was going to be a professional. At first I wanted to be a football player, but I made a great decision to play golf.”