Knox among winners, and he knows Laettner

By Doug FergusonJanuary 7, 2016, 4:10 pm

KAPALUA, Hawaii – 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 pingpong 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 pingpong.' 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 pingpong 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.''


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Knox still isn't in that league yet, though he took 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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Stock Watch: Spieth searching for putting form

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 16, 2018, 1:50 pm

Each week on GolfChannel.com, we’ll examine which players’ stocks and trends are rising and falling in the world of golf.

RISING

Patton Kizzire (+8%): By today’s accelerated standards, he’s a late bloomer, having reached the Tour at age 29. Well, he seems right at home now, with two wins in his last four starts.

Rory (+7%): Coming off the longest break of his career, McIlroy should have no excuses this year. He’s healthy. Focused. Motivated. It’s go time.

Chris Paisley (+5%): The best part about his breakthrough European Tour title that netted him $192,000? With his wife, Keri, on the bag, he doesn’t have to cut 10 percent to his caddie – she gets the whole thing.

Brooke Henderson (+3%): A seventh-place finish at the Diamond Resorts Invitational doesn’t sound like much for a five-time winner, but this came against the men – on a cold, wet, windy, 6,700-yard track. She might be the most fun player to watch on the LPGA. 

New European Ryder Cuppers (+2%): In something of a Ryder Cup dress rehearsal, newcomers Tommy Fleetwood and Tyrrell Hatton each went undefeated in leading Europe to a come-from-behind victory at the EurAsia Cup. The competition come September will be, um, a bit stiffer.



FALLING

Jordan’s putting (-1%): You can sense his frustration in interviews, and why not? In two starts he leads the Tour in greens in regulation … and ranks 201st (!) in putting. Here’s guessing he doesn’t finish the year there.

Brian Harman’s 2018 Sundays (-2%): The diminutive left-hander now has five consecutive top-10s, and he’s rocketing up the Ryder Cup standings, but you can’t help but wonder how much better the start to his year might have been. In the final pairing each of the past two weeks, he’s a combined 1 under in those rounds and wasn’t much of a factor.

Tom Hoge (-3%): Leading by one and on the brink of a life-changing victory – he hadn’t been able to keep his card each of the past three years – Hoge made an absolute mess of the 16th, taking double bogey despite having just 156 yards for his approach. At least now he’s on track to make the playoffs for the first time.

Predicting James Hahn’s form (-4%): OK, we give up: He’d gone 17 events without a top-15 before his win at Riviera; 12 before his win at Quail Hollow; and seven before he lost on the sixth playoff hole at Waialae. The margins between mediocre play and winning apparently are THAT small.

Barnrat (-5%): Coming in hot with four consecutive top-10s, and one of only two team members ranked inside the top 50 in the world, Kiradech Aphibarnrat didn’t show up at the EurAsia Cup, going 0-3 for the week. In hindsight, the Asian team had no chance without his contributions. 

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Langer not playing to pass Irwin, but he just might

By Tim RosaforteJanuary 16, 2018, 1:40 pm

Bernhard Langer goes back out on tour this week to chase down more than Hale Irwin’s PGA Tour Champions record of 45 career victories. His chase is against himself.

“I’m not playing to beat Hale Irwin’s record,” Langer told me before heading to Hawaii to defend his title at the Mitsubishi Electric Championship at Hualalai. “I play golf to play the best I can, to be a good role model, and to enjoy a few more years that are left.”

Langer turned 60 on Aug. 27 and was presented a massage chair by his family as a birthday gift. Instead of reclining (which he does to watch golf and football), he won three more times to close out a seven-win campaign that included three major championships. A year prior, coming off a four-victory season, Langer told me after winning his fourth Charles Schwab Cup that surpassing Irwin’s record was possible but not probable. With 36 career victories and 11 in his last two years, he has changed his tone to making up the nine-tournament difference as “probable.”

“If I could continue a few more years on that ratio, I could get close or pass him,” Langer told me from his home in Boca Raton, Fla. “It will get harder. I’m 60 now. It’s a big challenge but I don’t shy away from challenges.”


Bernhard Langer, Hale Irwin at the 1991 Ryder Cup (Getty Images)


Langer spent his off-season playing the PNC Father/Son, taking his family on a ski vacation at Big Sky in Yellowstone, Montana, and to New York for New Year’s. He ranks himself as a scratch skier, having skied since he was four years old in Germany. The risk of injury is worth it, considering how much he loves “the scenery, the gravity and the speed.”

Since returning from New York, Langer has immersed himself into preparing for the 2018 season. Swing coach Willy Hoffman, who he has worked with since his boyhood days as an as assistant pro in Germany, flew to Florida for their 43rd year of training.

“He’s a straight shooter,” Hoffman told me. “He says, 'Willy, every hour is an hour off my life and we have 24 hours every day.'"

As for Irwin, they have maintained a respectful relationship that goes back to their deciding singles match in the 1991 Ryder Cup. Last year they were brought back to Kiawah Island for a corporate appearance where they reminisced and shared the thought that nobody should ever have to bear what Langer went through, missing a 6-footer on the 18th green. That was 27 years ago. Both are in the Hall of Fame.

"I enjoy hanging out with Hale," Langer says.

Langer’s chase of Irwin’s record is not going to change their legacies. As Hoffman pointed out, “Yes, (Bernhard) is a rich man compared to his younger days. He had no money, no nothing. But today you don’t feel a difference when you talk to him. He’s always on the ground.”

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McIlroy: Ryder Cup won't be as easy as USA thinks

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 16, 2018, 1:18 pm

The Americans have won their past two international team competitions by a combined score of 38-22, but Rory McIlroy isn’t expecting another pushover at the Ryder Cup in September.

McIlroy admitted that the U.S. team will be strong, and that its core of young players (including Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas and Rickie Fowler) will be a force for the next decade. But he told reporters Tuesday at the HSBC Abu Dhabi Championship that course setup will play a significant role.

“If you look at Hazeltine and how they set the course up – big, wide fairways, no rough, pins in the middle of greens – it wasn’t set up for the way the Europeans like to play,” McIlroy said, referring to the Americans’ 17-11 victory in 2016. “I think Paris will be a completely different kettle of fish, so different.”

At every Ryder Cup, the home team has the final say on course setup. Justin Rose was the most outspoken about the setup at Hazeltine, saying afterward that it was “incredibly weak” and had a “pro-am feel.” 

And so this year’s French Open figures to be a popular stop for European Tour players – it’s being held once again at Le Golf National, site of the matches in September. Tommy Fleetwood won last year’s event at 12 under.

“I’m confident,” McIlroy said. “Everything being all well and good, I’ll be on that team and I feel like we’ll have a really good chance.

“The Americans have obviously been buoyant about their chances, but it’s never as easy as that. The Ryder Cup is always close. It always comes down to a few key moments, and it will be no different in Paris. I think we’ll have a great team and it definitely won’t be as easy as they think it’s going to be.” 

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Floodlights may be used at Dubai Desert Classic

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 16, 2018, 12:44 pm

No round at next week’s Dubai Desert Classic will be suspended because of darkness.

Tournament officials have installed state-of-the-art floodlighting around the ninth and 18th greens to ensure that all 132 players can finish their round.

With the event being moved up a week in the schedule, the European Tour was initially concerned about the amount of daylight and trimmed the field to 126 players. Playing under the lights fixed that dilemma.

“This is a wonderful idea and fits perfectly with our desire to bring innovation to our sport,” European Tour chief executive Keith Pelley said. “No professional golfer ever wants to come back the following morning to complete a round due to lack of daylight, and this intervention, should it be required, will rule out that necessity.”

Next week’s headliners include Rory McIlroy, Sergio Garcia and Henrik Stenson.