Success in the game of golf comes from
more than just a perfect swing. It’s meted out in inches, over miles of impeccable greens against impossible odds. Unlike many other professional sports, there are no multi-year, mega-million-dollar contracts to play and no teammates to fall back on. This simple formula challenges the mental endurance of even the most stalwart and steady: Make the cut, make the cash; miss the cut, pack your bags.
During the weekend of Sept. 26-29, the top 75 money-winners from the Web.com Tour, along with those ranked 126 to 200 on the PGA Tour money list, are competing in the Web.com Tour Championship at Dye’s Valley Course at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach. Among the Web.com competitors are two Jacksonville Beach residents, Nick Flanagan and Russell Knox. Though Knox, Flanagan and the rest of the field are competing for a share of an impressive $1 million purse, the prize they really want is far more valuable than money. At the end of the four-tournament series, the top 25 money-winners will receive a ticket to their dreams: a PGA Tour card.
“There’s a fine line between being on the PGA Tour and being out here,” Flanagan said.
And he would know. In 2007, Flanagan won back-to-back tournaments — the Henrico County Open and the BMW Charity Pro-Am — in his second year on the Web.com Tour (then the Nationwide Tour). A third win after an amazing seven-stroke comeback at the Xerox Classic later in the season earned him a Three-Win Promotion, or “battlefield promotion,” onto the PGA Tour.
As one of the youngest players on the PGA Tour in 2008, Flanagan, who turned 24 during the season, became overwhelmed and insecure.
“I felt a little uncomfortable on the big tour,” he said, “I think I got a little mixed up in more or less the hype about it.”
Flanagan lost his PGA Tour card at the end of a disappointing season. Plagued with regret and self-doubt, he floundered throughout 2009, making just four of 13 cuts on the Nationwide Tour. Now, after clawing back over the span of four seasons, he’s again in the hunt for a PGA Tour card.
Like Flanagan, Knox knows that, as hard as it is to make it onto the PGA Tour, it’s even harder to stay there. Knox made it on tour on the strength of his 2011 Web.com season, but finished outside of the top 125 on the PGA money list in 2012 and thus was granted only provisional status for 2013.
Stewart Moore, COO of eGolf Professional Tour (formerly the Tarheel Tour), has spent more than a decade on the circuit, first as a player, then as an executive. Over the years, Moore, who formerly worked for the PGA, has witnessed professional golf’s revolving door firsthand.
“Look at the Web.com leader board, it’s littered with guys who have won on the PGA tour,” he said.
Both Trevor Immelman and Jason Gore have previously won PGA Tournaments and are among the Web.com Tour players fighting for their PGA cards at the finals. Immelman, who won the Masters Tournament in 2008, won the Hotel Fitness Championship, the first of the four finals, and is thus guaranteed a place on the PGA Tour for 2014.
Moore said that every year, more than 600 golfers play on the eGolf “developmental tour” and he estimates that there are only a handful of tours like his in the U.S. Add to that the approximately 300 Web.com golfers, plus all the college golfers who graduate each year with dreams of playing on the PGA Tour, and it becomes clear that success takes a lot more than a few good rounds or a nice swing. It’s a matter of persevering week after week against scores of young, hungry prodigies and ambitious, seasoned veterans. Only the best can make it, and among that elite group, only the truly steadfast can remain on top.
After all, it’s one thing to play a great round in front of a handful of spectators, but it’s quite another to swallow the yips when the likes of Phil Mickelson and Adam Scott, plus a national television audience and scores of fans, are looking on. Only the most skillful can handle the pressure, shut out the distractions, forget the three-putt at the last hole, and play at the top of their game tournament after tournament. But that’s what it takes to play, and stay, on the PGA Tour.
Russell Knox got his start in golf as a wee lad in Scotland, when his father would let him tag along with him and his mates on the golf course. It was on these weekend outings that Knox, known as “Roo” to his family, first exhibited a natural talent for the game.
Knox set his sights on playing college golf somewhere warm after high school. A visit to Jacksonville University with his father led him to decide to make Northeast Florida his home. He and the rest of the JU team eventually led the Dolphins to the Atlantic Sun Conference title in 2006. Knox also made NCAA tournament appearances in 2006 and 2007.
While attending JU, Knox worked at Marsh Landing as a cart boy, where he met the woman he describes as his “everything,” former tennis pro Andrea Hernandez. He even found time to enjoy some of the finer traditions of student life on JU’s campus.
“I came to JU with two other Scottish guys,” Knox said. “We became pretty famous on our campus for being the Scottish alcoholics.”
He added that his experiences as a member on the JU team helped him become the athlete he is today.
“I think going to a smaller school like JU really helped me,” he said. “We were all kind of new to it; not one of us was really much better than anyone else, which helped us kind of grow as a team because we were all the same age.”
Had he attended a school with a Division
I golf program, Knox said he “would have been overwhelmed” and might have given up the game.
“I had no idea how bad I was [in college] and how good other players in this country were,” he said. “I was living in a false reality.”
After graduating in 2007, he played on developmental tours for a few years before making his Web.com Tour debut in 2010, tying for seventh in his first start. In 2011, Knox placed 12th on the money list and received a PGA Tour card for 2012. After missing the cut in 11 of his first 15 starts as an official PGA player, Knox rallied and made six consecutive cuts, eventually going on to make a total of eight cuts in 19 events. Ultimately placing 148th on the money list for the PGA season, Knox kept only provisional status for 2013. This year, he has pulled double duty, playing enough Web.com tournament events to qualify for the Tour Finals and playing 11 of the PGA events he was invited to. Though he played only 11 regular season Web.com events this year, Knox finished 36th on the regular season money list. Only three of the top 25 on the Web.com Tour played fewer than 12. On Sept. 26, he’ll be back in the hunt for his full PGA Tour card.
“It’s been a pretty consistent year. I’ve been close to having a really, really good year which hasn’t quite happened,” Knox said.
On July 26, during the second round of the Albertsons Boise Open, Knox became the fifth player in Web.com Tour history to shoot a 12-under-par 59, by shooting two eagles, eight birdies and not bogeying a single hole.
“It was weird ’cause it was mid-tournament, ’cause I kind of had to get over it,” Knox said.
He eventually placed 12th in the tournament.
Knox said he’ll always cherish the memory of shooting the “perfect round,” but it hasn’t quite sunk in yet.
“It’ll be something I’ll think about forever, just because of how rare it is, only 12 or 13 have done it ever,” he said.
Only six PGA players have ever shot what is known as “golf’s magic number” on tour. Jacksonville native David Duval shot a 59 in 1999 at the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic, and Ponte Vedra Beach resident Jim Furyk birdied his final hole to shoot a 59 on Sept. 13 at the BMW Championship.
On Web.com this year, a pair of 59s were shot by Knox and Will Wilcox, the fifth and fourth Web.com players, respectively, to shoot a 59.
During weeks off from tournaments, Knox is not likely to be found at TPC Sawgrass where the Web.com Tour players have practice rights.
“When I’ve been traveling for a couple of weeks, when I get home my goal is not to touch a club until Friday,” he said.
Actually, it would be hard to find him working out at all during the season. In the off-season, he hits the links and lifts weights twice a week; yet when he’s competing, Knox prefers to keep his head in the game rather than on a treadmill. In fact, he has enlisted professionals Lynn Marriott and Pia Nilsson, co-creators of the company Vision54, to help him cope with the sport’s mental side.
“I went to see them a few years ago, and they really helped me,” he said. “I can’t stress how important that side of golf is.”
When he isn’t on the road or on the course, Knox is usually hanging out with his beloved Hernandez, whom he also credits with much of his success.
“She’s been an enormous factor in my development as a pro because I’m naturally fairly lazy and she’s not, so she’s made sure I bust my balls pretty much,” he said.
Her niece and nephew are also frequent guests in their Jacksonville Beach home.
“I love hanging out with them,” he said. “They are just happy to spend time with me and Andrea. They don’t care about how successful I was, they’re just loving life.”
Although he spends much of the year on the road in hotels, which he admitted isn’t exactly a glamorous lifestyle, Knox isn’t fazed by the grind or the travel.
“I love the peace and quiet, to be honest,” he said. “You just get so used to your routine, watch your same garbage shows on television, watch a movie on your iPad, stare at the wall for an hour, and think about how bad you played.”
No matter where he is, however, Knox still finds time to enjoy and tweet about the finer things in life (@rooknox).
“Like, seriously, there is nothing better than a Twix ice cream bar. That thing is truly heaven. After you have a great day of golf, to top it off with a Twix ice cream, you may as well go to sleep, because it won’t get any better.”
After shooting 69 three days in a row, he shaved a stroke off his score on the final day of the Hotel Fitness Championship, the first of the Web.com Tour Finals, eventually placing 18th in the tournament. As of Sept. 9, Knox was ranked 31st. Knox had another promising finish at 30th in the Chiquita Classic, but narrowly missed the cut in the third tournament, the Nationwide Children’s Hospital Championship and slid to 45th on the money list. He needs a strong finish in the Tour Finals to make it into the top 25 and back on the PGA Tour.
Every circle of friends needs a guy like Nick Flanagan. The Australian has a head of fiery hair and a down-to-earth manner that belies his many achievements; he’s not some big-ego athlete who likes nothing better than being in front of the camera, talking about how great he is. When he’s not hitting the links, the Jacksonville Beach resident enjoys a typical Northeast Florida lifestyle. A self-described “very amateur surfer,” when he’s in town, Flanagan can often be found in the water, or riding his beach cruiser to Engine 15 Brewing Company or TacoLu, or hanging out with roommate Jonas Blixt, who’s on the PGA Tour.
He’s also a top-notch golfer.
In 2003, just a few years after he switched from soccer to golf in his mid-teens, the then-19-year-old Flanagan won the U.S. Amateur, becoming the first foreigner to win the tournament since 1971.
“I got lucky that week, which was nice,” Flanagan said.
To hear him tell it, over the course of Flanagan’s nine-year professional career, he’s had some very good luck and some very, very bad years.
After winning the Xerox Classic in 2007, Flanagan received a Three-Win Promotion onto the PGA Tour, becoming only the eighth player to do so.
“That week, I played well and had a ton of luck,” he said. “I’d only just started taking it seriously and then I got out there [on the PGA Tour].”
Finishing third in the overall money list that year, Flanagan was named the Tour Player of the Year.
Flanagan’s first two PGA starts as an official member resulted in promising top-20 finishes, but he struggled throughout much of 2008. Flanagan said he tried too hard to fit in and would buy materialistic things to make him feel better, when he should have been focusing on himself and the fundamentals.
“I’m usually pretty passive and don’t like having too much attention or whatnot. It was just a little weird walking around having people want a piece of your time all the time.”
After struggling through missed cuts and bad tournaments — he made the cut in 16 of 29 events — Flanagan’s season ended in disappointment. Ranked 169th at the end of the year, he lost his tour card.
“It probably wasn’t the happiest year in my 29, even though it probably should have been because I made more money than any other year,” he said.
Back on the Nationwide Tour in 2009, Flanagan, in a rut and with a deepening crisis of confidence, decided to take a break.
“In the middle of the year, I went back home for eight weeks and was pretty much borderline giving [golf] up at the time. Every event I played, I didn’t really want to be there.”
In the end, he decided to keep chasing his dream and returned to the States to finish out the season.
“I’m not really educated enough to do anything else. I don’t have much else to fall back on,” said Flanagan, who skipped college to play golf. “At the time, it felt like it was either that or digging a ditch somewhere.”
After his worst year by far, a season in which he made just four of 13 cuts, it would be three long years before Flanagan won another tournament — on the Nationwide Tour in 2012 — when he again triumphed at the BMW Charity Pro-Am. This year, he has finally started to see a change for the better.
“I’ve gone through some bad times. I’m seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, which is good even though I haven’t had the results that I’ve liked,” he said.
Though the past few years have been a bit lean, Flanagan has not lost sight of his ultimate goal. On weeks without a tournament, he takes off a few days to recuperate and get chores and errands out of the way. By Thursday afternoon, he’s back at it, either practicing at TPC Sawgrass where he’ll often run into other Web.com players, or training alongside fellow Web.com golfer Aron Price with local physical trainer Jeff Fronk.
“We do a lot of explosive and speed work stuff, a lot of rotational stuff, more injury-prevention things, [and] a lot of core things.”
To cut tournament costs, when he’s on the road, Flanagan often bunks with other players like Price or Tim Wilkinson. He admits the company is nice, too.
“It’s a little bit easier when you get back from a long day to have some conversation, rather than just staring at the TV,” he said.
Going into the final day of the Cox Classic this August, the last tournament of the Web.com regular season, Flanagan’s season was over. Or so he thought.
“I missed the cut in that last event, obviously, and I thought that was probably it for the year,” he said.
But that Sunday, while waiting to board a flight, he was holding fast at 75 on the money list. As he boarded, the final results were still pending. By the time his plane landed, it was official: He’d placed 75 and squeaked into the Tour Finals at the last possible spot.
On Sept. 26-29, Flanagan competes in the Web.com Tour Championship for a spot on the PGA Tour. Wiser and more experienced, he isn’t worried about repeating the mistakes of the past.
“I’ll be able to deal with it now; I’m a little bit older,” he said.
Flanagan made the cut at the Hotel Fitness Championship, the first event of the Web.com Finals, by one stroke. A tournament low of 4-under-par on day three had him in the hunt for a strong finish, but a day-four three-over-par 75 dropped him back to a tie for 60th place.
After missing the cut following a 5-over-par 77 in the second round of the Chiquita Classic, Flanagan dropped in the rankings to 96th as of Sept. 9. After missing the cut in two events — the Chiquita Classic and the Nationwide Children’s Hospital Championship — Flanagan dropped to 109th in the rankings. To regain a PGA Tour card, Flanagan will need to finish at the top of the Tour Finals at Dye’s Valley Course.