It was the late, great Arnold Palmer who once said that the hardest thing in golf is making a birdie when you really need one. By that measure, the new Irish Open champion can feel pretty pleased with himself.
Make that doubly pleased.
Standing on the endlessly picturesque Ballyliffin’s 18th green 13-under par for the 71 holes he had already completed, Russell Knox was pretty certain he would need to hole from 35-feet to tie Ryan Fox in the group behind. When he did so, the 33-year old Scot was round in 66. Fox narrowly failed to make what would have been a winning birdie, and the two went to a playoff.
It lasted just one hole. After being outdriven by 60 yards, Knox found the green and almost exactly the same spot, 35-feet from the cup. Fox then pitched to maybe 10 feet, making him a strong favorite to clinch what would have been his maiden European Tour victory. Amazingly, however, it was Knox who holed again, before Fox’s tying effort cruelly horseshoed out.
“It is tough to describe how great this feels,” said Knox, who finished second in this event two years ago behind Rory McIlroy. “I can’t believe I’m holding this trophy. After I made eagle on the 4th I knew I was in it. I hadn’t missed a shot. And the putts have been going in for me lately. I wasn’t even really aiming, just reacting to the greens.
“Making putts like those is why I play golf. All the practice days, all the bad moments are taken care of with moments like that. On the first one, I told myself not to aim and I flushed it. And to make two from almost exactly the same spot, is such a bonus. I told my caddie, ‘I’ve already made this putt, it can’t be too difficult.’ And for it to go in, I guess it was my time.”
Slightly less happy with his lot was defending champion Jon Rahm. One week on from making a last day triple-bogey en route to finishing two shots behind French Open champion Alex Noren, the burly Spaniard repeated the feat in County Donegal. The triple arrived as early as the second hole, after which Rahm was on fire. Seven birdies and an eagle later, he was 12-under par for the week and, yes, two-shots short once again.
The last birdie is worthy of mention. Sixty metres short of the final green after a mighty drive on the 452 yarder, Rahm’s pitch – albeit one that would have run well past – struck the pin full-on and finished inches away. It was a suitably dramatic end to his down-and-up day.
One that belonged to Knox, who earned €998,425. Two years on from his controversial omission from the European Ryder Cup team at Hazeltine – he would have qualified as of right had he been a tour member at the time of his victory in the 2015 WGC HSBC Championship in China – the Inverness-born son of a Scottish mother and American father has hoisted himself into the frame for a second time. Which is not to say he is taking anything for granted. Still just outside the eight automatic qualifiers, he knows much work remains to be done if he is to tee-up in Paris, where he finished T-2 last week, come September.
“I needed a stretch like this if I am to make the Ryder Cup,” continued Knox, who was T-12 at the US Open last month. “You need to win tournaments to qualify. This is a start, but I have a bit to go yet. I’d like to win the Scottish Open next week too of course. I’m not greedy though. Right now I just want to enjoy this one.”
For the record, Spaniard Jorge Campillo was alone in third on 13-under par, what was his sixth top-five finish of the season. Rahm was next, tied with the 54-hole leader, Erik Van Rooyen of South Africa.
And finally . . . by way of consolation Fox claimed one of the three Open Championship spots available to non-exempt players who finished in the top 10. The others went to Zander Lombard of South Africa and Englishman Andy Sullivan.