OH MY gosh, he’s right there!”
I’m pretty sure the blonde patron standing in the middle of the crosswalk on the fifth hole was talking about Jason Day, but I couldn’t be certain. Jeff Knox was walking right behind him.
Knox is the Augusta National member who has developed a cult following at the Masters in recent years, by getting to play as a marker when an odd number of players make the cut. And by playing well. Knox’s conquests include Sergio Garcia and then world No.1 Rory McIlroy in 2014.
It’s possible that Day got less sleep on the Friday night of last year’s Masters than the tournament’s leaders after learning about his third-round pairing. When I asked him about Knox’s reputation as a giant slayer around Augusta, Day laughed. But he knew. Oh, he knew.
“I heard that he beat Rory,” Day said. “He said he was nervous on the first tee and in my head I’m like, ‘I’m kind of nervous because I don’t want to let my marker beat me.’”
It certainly looked like it might happen again on Masters Saturday last year. Knox, 54, two-putted for par from 50 feet on the difficult par-4 first, backhanding in his par putt. “You made that look easy!” Day remarked, before taking his time over a similar two-footer.
Then on the second, Day flubbed a pitch shot and made bogey. Knox two-putted for par from long range again to draw first blood. It’s no wonder auction houses are getting requests for Jeff Knox memorabilia.
In case you’re wondering, when Knox won a hole, Day still had the honour on the next tee. Knox’s score and name aren’t posted anywhere. And the only photos of him posted by Getty Images from the round are really just photos of Jason Day. But there Knox is … lurking.
At the Masters, the solo competitor out first on the weekend is required to play with a marker chosen by the club. Not that Day seemed to mind. He was as much of a sponge as he was a player that day, chatting constantly with Knox as they walked stride for stride down nearly every fairway – at least, until Day kept going (and going) to get to his much longer tee shots.
And why wouldn’t Day chat him up? Knox, who was inducted into Georgia’s Golf Hall of Fame earlier in 2017, holds the course record, a 61(!) from the members tees. Not that he gives off the impression of a total badass. “He looks like Tin Cup,” one fan says. I’d say he looks more like Tin Cup’s dad.
“Oh, he’s definitely a local legend, but he’s the least boastful person in the world,” says friend Stan Tam of Knox, who directs the non-profit Knox Foundation in nearby Thomson, Georgia. “He’s so down to earth. He blends in anywhere.”
Jeff Knox: No.1 in your heart, not listed in your program.
On the ninth hole, Day watched his tee shot anxiously, but Knox stepped in and said, “That’s perfect.” Knox was right. Obviously.
But while his course knowledge was as sharp as ever, his game wasn’t. By my count (he scooped up a couple of short putts to keep play moving), Knox made the turn in three-over, three down to the Queenslander. Still, not bad for someone giving up 50-plus metres on nearly every hole.
Not that we’d get to hear Knox’s thoughts on his latest walk with one of the biggest names in golf. Knox doesn’t do interviews after his rounds. Although he’s become a bit of a tournament spectacle, Augusta National prefers he stay out of the limelight. At least, as out of the limelight as someone who McIlroy calls “the best he’s ever seen” on Augusta National’s greens can.
“It was kind of neck and neck,” Day said of the made-up match. “I bogeyed the second hole and he parred it and kind of had a little 1 up lead there for a bit, so I’m glad I ended up carrying out the back side.”
Day didn’t become another notch on Knox’s green Augusta National belt but Knox had the last highlight, bouncing a long iron to within 10 feet of a difficult back-left pin on the 18th. After the two players shared a laugh and an embrace as they walked up to the 18th green, Knox converted the birdie putt and allowed himself his first sign of emotion by giving a tiny fist pump and a thumbs up to his loyal fans. A local legend, indeed.
My final tally put him at 77 – eight shots worse than Day’s 69. Not Knox’s best, but also not bad for a plus-1 handicapper against a recent world No.1 in a Major championship from the tips – even if it is his home club.
“Oh well,” one patron said. “He didn’t win today.”
Nope, but he might have found something on that last hole. Whoever gets paired with Jeff Knox this year might be in trouble.