Russell Knox's long road leads from Jacksonville to Augusta

By Garry Smits
Published on
Russell Knox's long road leads from Jacksonville to Augusta

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- First comes the victory. Not just any victory, but the one that carries with it the best perk in golf for a professional who has yet to experience the Augusta National Golf Club in April -- a spot in the Masters Tournament.

Then comes the waiting, for the letter of invitation from Augusta National cementing the fact that there will be a tee sheet with your name on it.

Jacksonville University graduate Russell Knox said he was being patient. But it was January, two months after he won the World Golf Championship event in Shanghai, China, to qualify for a Masters invitation, and still, no letter.

Then, in early January, Knox got the letter from his agent at IMG, John Wiler, in a very 21st-century manner of delivery.

The letter of invitation, like most of Knox's golf-related correspondence, had been sent to Wiler at IMG headquarters in Cleveland. Wiler snapped a photo of it and texted it to Knox with the words, "I assume you wanted to see this."

Wiler later visited Knox at his Ponte Vedra Beach home to take care of some routine matters. As Wiler got up to leave, he reached into his pocket in an "oh, by the way" manner and produced an envelope with an Augusta, Ga., post office box as the return address.

"Here you go," Wiler said. "You might want to keep this."

"[Wiler] came to the house for something totally different, and then brought the letter out in a very nonchalant way," Knox said. "I knew I had qualified so I wasn't really worried. But he did surprise me with it."

The note card inside didn't even have Knox's name on it. But inscribed were the magic words to any kid who has ever stood on a putting green and said to himself, "this ... to win the Masters."

"The Board of Governors of the Augusta National Golf Club cordially invites you to participate in the Two Thousand and Sixteen Masters Tournament to be held at Augusta, Ga., the seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth of April."

Under the inscription is the name of Augusta National chairman William Porter Payne. On the lower left are the letters, "RSVP" -- as if the club ever had to wonder if an invitee would ponder the question.

"It's the letter I always hoped I would get," Knox said. "It was different then what I thought, with no name on it. But it's cool. I will have that framed and on the wall."

Knox said he had no contact with the club before the invitation and none after. He knew he was entitled to play practice rounds, so the week before playing in the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, Knox went to Augusta with his father Mike.

Knox saw a good extended weather forecast for that day, and pulled the trigger on the five-hour drive.

After exiting from the Bobby Jones Expressway onto Washington Road in Augusta, he then made a common mistake for someone going to the club for the first time -- he over-shot Gate 2, a right turn off Washington Road with its glut of fast-food restaurants and strip malls and onto the serenity of world-famous Magnolia Lane, flanked on both sides by the trees that gave it the name.

"We had to make a quick U-turn," he said. "I was more surprised than anything that the entrance was straight off the main road. The club is a lot closer to the road than I thought."

Knox and his father then made one of the most famous short drives in golf and pulled up behind the clubhouse. He had already called ahead, and one of the members of the pro staff was there to greet him and get him situated with a locker, a caddie and a rundown on the rules: one walking guest (his father), no cell phone on the course, no texting and keep the photos to a minimum, with no postings to social media.

It was his first visit to the club. Knox said he felt familiar with the settings from watching nearly every Masters on TV since he was a boy in Scotland.

"The Masters is there every year, so you watch it enough times on TV and you know every hole, what people have hit, the whole history of every big shot," he said.

But TV is two-dimensional. Once Knox stepped out of the clubhouse on the right of the first tee, it left him in awe.

"I wasn't sure if the whole course was going to be full overseed, if it was all going to be green or there would be any brown areas," Knox said. "But we walked out there and I was amazed. Everything is so washed, every blade of grass on the whole property is the same length. It's in such amazing condition."

Knox said the temperature was in the high 70s, "a perfect day to play golf."

Knox also was appreciative of the fact that on his first visit to Augusta National, he walked 18 holes with his father.

"He was pumped," Knox said of his father. "He would have loved to have played, but just to be there was pretty special. To have never been there, and to spend the first time with my dad was a pretty cool feeling."

Knox birdied the first hole. He found the fairway, hit a 7-iron into the green to a back-left hole placement and made a 15-foot putt. Knox said he didn't keep score but remembers about a half-dozen other birdies (including every par-5 except No. 2) and a few bogeys.

The highlight of the day was a 9-iron into the famous par-3 12th hole, scaring the cup until it came to rest 3 feet away.

He missed the putt.

"Almost a hole in one, but I missed it, so not a great story," he said.

Knox said that overall, he played well.

"But I wasn't there to take notes or really care how I played," he said. "I was trying to soak it in first time around. The course tells this great story as you walk around. Every hole is different, the shape, its length. Every green is different. It's designed perfectly."

Knox said he has not returned to Augusta for an additional practice round. He will arrive on Sunday and said the practice rounds and sessions on the range and short-game area will suffice.

"Guys can over-prepare," he said. "You see it every week. The bottom line: It's just golf. A 150-yard shot at Augusta is the same as 150 yards at Jacksonville Beach."

That approach worked last November in Shanghai at the Sheshan International Golf Club, where Knox won the tournament that got him to Augusta.

"I played one practice round that took about three hours," he said. "There's no recipe. It's what works for each individual."

Knox will play in the Par-3 Contest, and it will be a special afternoon because Neal Flemming, the adult son of Knox's former coach at JU, will be his caddie. Mike Flemming died two years ago at age 71. After luring Knox to Jacksonville, he continued working as his coach for another four years until his passing.

Flemming's wife, Kinta, also will be Knox's guest for the week.

Wiler said the week will have a bittersweet tinge to it. "Russell and Mike talked about playing in the Masters all the time," Wiler said. "Mike always said he wanted to stand on the range at Augusta with Russell, helping him get ready."

Wiler said Knox is understandably excited but has a way of not letting emotions get in the way of the job at hand.

"Russell has always done a good job at focusing when it's time to compete," Wiler said.

"I can't believe it's finally here," Knox said. "For me, it's always been about the Masters, just like every kid. It's the biggest tournament in golf."

Knox, a native of the Scottish Highlands town of Inverness, said that includes the Open Championship, the oldest major in golf and played at five venues in his home country.

"I have the highest respect for the Open," he said. "But as a kid, on the green with my buddies, those putts were always to win the Masters."

Those putts will finally count for Knox in four days.

This article was written by Garry Smits from The Florida Times-Union and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.