Russell Knox was near Jacksonville when his agent informed him that he had a chance to play his first PGA Tour event. One problem: the playoff for the final Monday-qualifying spot in last year’s Transitions Championship was being held near Tampa, about three hours away.
Knox had left the course after his round, figuring 1 under par wouldn’t earn him one of the four spots. There was no way he could return in time for the playoff. Monday qualifying might be one of golf’s toughest tasks, but it’s impossible when you don’t participate.
Citing that philosophy, Knox decided this year to take a risk, leave the mini-tours he’d played the past few years and try to play his way onto the Nationwide Tour.
“I was 100 percent willing to go broke,” Knox said. He could laugh now, because his plan resulted in the largest paycheck, and first Nationwide Tour card, of his career. He Monday qualified for last week’s Fresh Express Classic and finished second in the fog-shortened event. He earned $52,800 to move to 11th on the money list (a player can earn Nationwide Tour status by surpassing the earnings of No. 100 on the previous year’s money list).
“He’s had a lot of success on mini-tours, but it’s such a huge leap because it really puts the PGA Tour in his sights,” said Mike Flemming, who recruited Knox to Jacksonville University and is his swing coach. “We are no longer talking about having the tools. It’s having that mindset that says I’m good enough to play out here.”
Knox, 25, was born in Inverness, Scotland, and now lives in Jacksonville Beach, Fla.
Earning Nationwide Tour status through Monday qualifiers is one of golf’s most difficult tasks. Only 12 players have done it in the previous five years; four of them didn’t attain status until the season’s final full-field event. Only one player – Roberto Castro – did it last year. That’s less than the number of PGA Tour players who shot 59 in 2010.
Only 14 spots are available at Nationwide Tour Monday qualifiers, which often have fields in excess of 260 (the qualifier usually is played on two courses, with seven spots available at each site). About 5 percent of participants in Monday qualifiers gain admission into the event. By comparison, Harvard accepts slightly more than 7 percent of applicants. Shooting 69 or 70 often isn’t good enough to get in, and it leaves a player with nothing to show for the money spent to travel to the qualifier.
Knox had been among the minority of mini-tour players successful enough to finance their own career. Last year, he won on the eGolf and Hooters tours and earned a combined $130,000. But after three-plus professional seasons, he knew he had to start making strides toward earning a card on the PGA or Nationwide tours. He also Monday qualified for this year’s Transitions Championship (shooting 71-74 to miss the cut by three).
His girlfriend, Andrea Hernandez, had to go through similar qualifiers each week while playing on the Women’s Tennis Association tour in the 1990s. She helped persuade Knox to try to Monday qualify for each event on this year’s Nationwide Tour.
“She just said, ‘Just go out and do it.’ If you’re not entered into the qualifier, you’re not going to make it,” Knox said. “It’s so obvious, but so true.”
Knox’s success comes just three weeks after countryman Martin Laird won the Arnold Palmer Invitational. The Scotsmen met for the first time in the locker room of this year’s Transitions Championship. They have more in common than a home country, though. Both reworked their game after arriving in the United States for college, eventually becoming All-Americans at schools not known as golf powerhouses (Laird went Colorado State).
“He was a very aggressive player. Wasn’t tremendously accurate. Had a tremendous short game,” Flemming said. “He is now very accurate. . . . We’ve tightened him up.”
At last year’s Gold Strike Casino Classic on the Hooters Tour, Knox opened with 62-61, eventually shooting 29 under and winning by eight shots.
Knox and Laird spent their time developing at golf’s lower levels. It took Laird three seasons to earn his PGA Tour card. Knox turned pro in 2007, winning three times. He may be accustomed to winning, but never has finishing second had so many benefits.
“This was definitely a nice runner-up,” Knox said.