KAPALUA, Hawaii (AP) – Russell Knox knows he is in good company at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions because only PGA Tour winners are at Kapalua.
That wasn't always the case, though Knox can be forgiven.
Years ago, when the 30-year-old Scot was still grinding in golf's minor leagues, a friend who looked after Fred Funk's home in Florida invited Knox over for a few beers and to watch a fight on pay-per-view. Funk's house had everything, including a ping-pong table, and Knox was playing when another guest arrived.
"All of a sudden, this gorilla of a man walks in," Knox said. "He says, 'Oh, you're good at ping-pong.' That was it. He didn't even say hello. He said, 'I'm Christian Laettner,' and I thought, 'Who the hell is that?' I thought he must be a basketball player because he was 7-foot tall, but I didn't know who he was."
One game led to 20. A few minutes turned into a few hours. The Duke great and NBA All-Star got the best of Knox, but not by much. As he left that night, Knox took one last look at his environment and told his friend, "Man, I can't believe I'm in Fred Funk's house. This is so cool."
"He said, 'Well, the guy you just played ping-pong with for the last four hours is called Christian Laettner, and he's probably a bigger deal than Fred Funk,'" Knox said. "So then I went home and googled him. Oh, man, he was on the Dream Team."
Knox still isn't in that league yet, though he good a giant step just by making it to Kapalua.
That 12-hour flight from Florida to paradise was nothing like his journey from a middling amateur in Scotland to a small college (Jacksonville University) to working in the cart barn to save cash for the mini-tours and eventually a card on the PGA Tour.
And now he is part of a winners-only field alongside Jordan Spieth and Jason Day, Rickie Fowler and Dustin Johnson.
Knox started his PGA Tour career in 2010 at No. 963 in the world.
Now he's No. 30.
"I always hoped I would be a top-50 player. At every level of golf, I've always thought I could do it, but I needed to prove it to myself before I really felt I could do it. Before you always hoped you could," he said. "I've still got to play incredible to do well, but at least I know I can stand on a tee and say, 'I've won a tournament before, and it was a big one.'"
All he did was become the first player since the inception of the World Golf Championships to win in his debut, beating a field that included Spieth, Johnson, Rory McIlroy and a host of others who have known they were good all their lives.
Knox was selected to play for Scotland in an amateur event in Spain during his junior year in college. It opened his eyes to the standard of golf around the world, and he knew it wouldn't include him if he didn't work harder.
"I can't believe out of all the Scottish guys on that team, I've done the best," he said. "Because I was the worst by a mile."
He still rates a Hooters Tour event in Mississippi as highly as a World Golf Championship. He had a one-shot lead in the 18th fairway when he hit 6-iron into the water and lost by one. He was distraught driving back to Jacksonville. One year later, with a one-shot lead on the 18th hole in the same tournament, in nearly the identical spot in the fairway, he hit 6-iron onto the green and won his first event as a pro.
He received $33,500 for that victory at Dancing Rabbit Golf Club.
"I bought myself a car – a Toyota Highlander," he said. "And it was pretty much the whole check."
Knox won $1.4 million for his victory in China, and he won $545,600 for a playoff loss to Graeme McDowell a week later in Mexico. He is going to the Masters for the first time in April, and if he plays reasonable well this year will get into the other majors and WGCs.
He also has joined the European Tour with hopes of making the Ryder Cup team.
Knox already has played the Nedbank Challenge. He will play Abu Dhabi, the Irish Open, Wentworth and the Scottish Open at Castle Stuart, close to where he grew up in Inverness. He looks forward to that nearly as much as the Masters. It will be a great feeling for the local kid who left home and made good.
He's a PGA Tour winner. He's in the top 50 in the world.
And he knows who Christian Laettner is.
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