No disrespect to newly-crowned Scottish Open champion Bernd Wiesberger and China’s Haotong Li, but Russell Knox has definitely been downgraded in the 148th Open Championship at Royal Portrush.
Twelve months ago, having arrived at Carnoustie as the newly-crowned Irish Open champion, the Scottish No 1 found himself in one of the marquee groups with three-time winner Tiger Woods and Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama.
“I don’t think I’m going to get that pairing this year,” laughed Knox as he spoke during last week’s Aberdeen Standard Investments Scottish Open about his fifth appearance in the game’s oldest major.
“I enjoyed that last year. It was a career highlight. Playing an Open in Scotland coming off a victory and playing with your childhood hero was pretty special.”
While Knox made an early exit after two 73s, Woods went on to lead at one stage on the final day before tying for sixth, using that encouraging effort to win the Tour Championship a couple of months later, then landing a fifth Masters title with a sensational success in April.
“I sensed he was on his way back,” said Knox as he recalled the American feeling his way in the Claret Jug event 12 months ago with a pair of 71s in the first two rounds. “On the Friday, he hit this 3 or 4-iron from 250 yards to the middle of the green, it was one of the moments of your life.
“It was full on and you want to be in that environment. I wish I had played a little better. But it was still a career moment and I was on cloud nine after my victory in Ireland.”
Having been bitterly disappointed to miss the cut last week on home soil, the 34-year-old is hoping to bounce back in the Open as it is staged on the County Antrim coast for the first time in nearly 70 years.
In 16 major appearances to date, his best effort is tied 12th in last year’s US Open at Shinnecock Hills. Knox has missed the cut 10 times in those events, including three out of four in this tournament, and, though never one to heap too much pressure on himself, the man who became the first Scot to win a World Golf Championship with his HSBC Champions triumph in China in 2015 is eager to get in the mix this week.
“My next goal is to get into contention in the majors,” said the Florida-based Invernesian. “I wasn’t too far off being right there in the US Open last year. Every part of my game I feel just needs to get a little better. But I am not a million miles away.
“But the good thing I have tucked away is when I’m playing good I seem to reach another level which I have proved to myself a lot. I just need to do that more often. Coming into this event last year, I had played a lot and was running on fumes after Ireland. But I haven’t been that way this year so I can’t use that as an excuse.
“Everything about my game wasn’t very good at the Scottish Open. The harder I tried the worse I got. The par 5s were playing pretty easy and I just didn’t take care of these easy birdies and, on a few of the trickier holes, I hit some bad shots. I was just miles off the mark.”
While admitting it is “strange” to be at a new venue for the event, Knox says he is “ready to rumble” even if he will only have played a couple of practice rounds. In contrast, Rory McIlroy has played here countless times and holds the course record of 61, which he shot at just 16.
“No, he’s way uglier than I am,” joked Knox when asked if he’d like to swap places with the home favourite this week. “It is what it is. You are who you are.
“I could say if I was better at golf I’d be better than Rory. But I’m not, so get on with it. He deals with that pressure all the time.
“He’s favourite to win at almost any tournament and he’s earned that level of respect.”