Twelve months ago, Russell Knox had the PGA Tour’s flagship title, won by Sandy Lyle in 1987, in his sights after starting the closing circuit with back-to-back birdies before adding a third one at the fourth. Having quickly moved to nine-under, the 36-year-old found himself sitting just one shot off the lead, but, as his hopes stalled following two bogeys in the space of three holes before the turn, it was Smith who landed the spoils in the so-called fifth major.
“It was good,” recalled Knox of his week’s work on that occasion, having ended up in a tie for sixth – his best effort in eight appearances in the tournament – on the back of rounds of 71-71-68-70 that gave him an eight-under-par total. “I obviously played well and a few things also went my way. For instance, I sometimes drove it in the rough on par 5s, so I laid up and made a birdie that way. So I didn’t have to deal with the stress of going for the risky shot. I played fairly conservative.”
The Scot picked up $675,000 for his performance, which included some big momentum moments on a course that provides one of the toughest tests on the PGA Tour schedule due to its demanding nature. “I remember starting one morning and I was on 15,” added Knox. “I was in the fairway and I tugged my first shot left into a bunker then holed my bunker shot. Obviously when you have a nice finish some good things go your way. I remember in the final round that I birdied one, two and four and I think I was one back of the lead, even though the leaders hadn’t teed off. So it was cool to feel I was really in the mix. Obviously I made a few stumbles, but I birdied the last to finish T6, which was my best finish all year, and it was a great tournament to do it in.”
The weather proved a big factor last year’s edition, with the first round being completed 54 hours after it had started following delays on Thursday, Friday and Saturday and the action then spilling over to the Monday. “I had the good side of the draw, which was nice,” admitted Knox, who is back flying the Saltire with Martin Laird, who tied for second behind Matt Kuchar in 2012. “I even had a day at home, which was rare obviously. I didn’t have to play 17 twice when it was blowing 30mph. I did have some very cold mornings to deal with, but that was nothing compared to the winds, so it was nice to get a favourable draw.”
Both out in the afternoon wave, Knox will have American Kevin Tway and Chesson Hadley for company in the opening round on Thursday, while Laird is out with Korean K.H. Lee and former US Open champion Gary Woodland. Lyle is the sole Scot to have landed the title, claiming his success in 1987 after beating Jeff Sluman in a play-off.