AKRON, Ohio – As Russell Knox walked to the interview podium that sits a few feet from the clubhouse steps at Firestone Country Club, he took off his hat, ran his hand through his hair and breathed a deep sigh of relief.
It’s been a while since Knox has had reason to address a handful of reporters after one of his rounds. The affable Scot has been mired in a lengthy slump, missing each of his last three cuts as his world ranking plummeted from 18th in January to 50th as of this week.
With his on-course efforts not translating into results, Knox found himself beginning to tinker. He recently tried new iron shafts for the first time in five years. And he rifled through his personal collection of putters, spending a rainy afternoon last week at home in Jacksonville Beach effectively holding a tryout on a 12-foot mat.
After spending hours in search of a spark, Knox ended up coming full circle by reinstating the putter he used to win the 2015 WGC-HSBC Invitational. Why it ever left his bag – or what exactly it did to turn his fate around on the greens during his opening-round 66 at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational – remains a mystery.
“We’re sick, man,” Knox said. “Us golfers are sick. I mean, it’s amazing. I’ve probably went through 20 putters since then, just in doing the search, but today felt unbelievable.”
In a sport with endless variables, there’s never a shortage of options for players looking to point the finger of blame. For some, the focus is off the course. Bubba Watson explained after a 3-under 67 that a shift in diet has boosted his energy levels and helped him lose 18 pounds since November from his already slight frame.
Others look to the man carrying the bag as a possible solution. Rory McIlroy’s first round with friend Harry Diamond looping went well, but his departure from J.P. Fitzgerald was clearly an effort to turn around his season before it’s too late. Adam Scott has had Steve Williams on the bag for each of the first three majors this year, but for this week and next the job is back in the hands of David Clark.
For many, though, the greatest temptation – and the change that’s easiest to make mid-season – is to tinker with the 14 clubs in the bag.
When it comes to changes on the fly, few can match the passion or frequency of Phil Mickelson. Whether it’s two drivers, no drivers, wedges of variable loft or a new putting grip, Mickelson is not shy about making adjustments.
“I’ve always sided on doing it rather than not, because I feel like if there’s something that gives me a chance to play better, gives me an advantage or an opportunity to shoot a lower score, I want to do it,” Mickelson said.
While all players inevitably swap out old equipment, the question of timing remains a very personal one. Some are willing to make tweaks up until the eve of the tournament, while others like to run their sticks into the ground.
“I hate it,” said Dustin Johnson. “I don’t like to change clubs ever. So when I find stuff I like, I play with it as long as I can.”
Of course, the world No. 1 made a notable exception to his longstanding philosophy this week, swapping in a new driver with higher loft to help him better hit a fade around Firestone. The results, including a 439-yard bomb on No. 16, speak for themselves.
While Jordan Spieth dabbled with a new putter at the AT&T Byron Nelson in May, he explained after a 3-under 67 that such actions for him are more the exception than the rule when the results have dried up.
“For me, that adds another thing with what I have to do and what’s already going wrong with myself,” Spieth said. “I actually would rather figure it out with my stuff, and if I feel like I’m on, then at certain times where I get plenty of time to put something new into play, then it’s the time to do it. It’s rare.”
Amid a busy two-month stretch that kicks off this week and includes a WGC, a major, four playoff events and the Presidents Cup, the range was buzzing early in the week. Even the PGA Tour’s elite, those who have earned entry into this limited-field event, sometimes believe that the secret could be unlocked with one more slight change.
According to Mickelson, this is actually the best time of the year to do your tinkering.
“A lot of guys like to wait until the season’s over to do stuff, but the problem with that for me is [that] I usually stop practicing those last two months of the year. My game isn’t sharp,” Mickelson said. “I can’t really tell the difference, the subtle differences of a club because I haven’t been playing. So it’s actually easier for me to do it in an off week during the year.”
The search continues, even among the best players and even after a good round, because golf is a game that simply can’t be solved. The maddening beauty of such a proposition makes the wins all the sweeter, and it can frustrate indiscriminately when the chips are down.
For Knox, it’s one round on the good side of the ledger, the first in a while. And it comes knowing full well that a race through another 20 putters in search of inspiration may not be that far away.
“You always blame your equipment rather than yourself,” Knox said. “So maybe I just have to take the blame and say I sucked and the putter worked.”