Russell Knox and Duncan Stewart were inseparable as Scottish team-mates at a university in northeast Florida. Their proximity was both social and statistical. The years, as they tend to do, have increased the distance between the two friends, though. They live a continent apart and compete in two vastly different contexts. But they will be reunited at the World Cup of Golf. Knox used his newfound status among the world’s elite as an opportunity to partner with his former room-mate, and give him a helping hand. Each participating country’s highest-ranked player gets to pick his partner. Several Scots sit ahead of Stewart in the World Ranking, but Knox said it was a simple decision.
And so, the two former Jacksonville University Dolphins will represent Scotland from November 24-27 at Kingston Heath Golf Club, in Melbourne.
“If we finish dead last by 20 shots or win the thing, we’re going to talk about this until we’re dead,” Knox said. “I feel like this has the potential to change Duncan’s life. I feel like he could easily be in my shoes and vice versa, and if he was in my shoes, he would’ve picked me.”
Less than one-tenth of a stroke separated them during their four years as college team-mates. Knox averaged 72.85 strokes per round at Jacksonville, to Stewart’s 72.93. Their professional resumés look drastically different today, though.
Knox has won two US PGA Tour titles since November, finished tenth in this season’s FedExCup and narrowly missed out on automatic qualification for Europe’s Ryder Cup team. In contrast Stewart, who briefly quit professional golf and worked in a slaughterhouse, currently competes on the European Challenge Tour.
He was considering retirement again after struggling in 2014 and 2015, but returning to the lessons he learned in college has him on the verge of earning his European Tour card.
He won his first Challenge Tour title in May, and is currently inside the top ten of the Road to Oman Rankings – with the top 15 earning graduation to the top tier of European golf at the end of the season. Just four events remain on the 2016 schedule, which concludes in Oman on November 5.
Stewart started the year 1,309th in the Official World Golf Ranking, but needed to enter the top 500 by August to be eligible for Knox’s pick. Stewart was still floating around the top 500 in late May, but recently reached a career-best 298th thanks to an impressive run of form.
Last place at the World Cup pays approximately the same as first place on the Challenge Tour, whilst each member of the winning team will earn US $1.28 million.
The tournament also gives Stewart his first opportunity to compete against players like Adam Scott and Marc Leishman of Australia, the United States’ Rickie Fowler and Jimmy Walker, and England’s Danny
Knox first brought up the World Cup when Stewart met him for lunch before May’s Dubai Duty Free Irish Open. At first, Stewart thought Knox was joking.
“Then a couple months later, when I said to him, ‘No, Duncan, I’m seriously going to pick you,’ he was shocked,” Knox said. “He texted me for day after day after day and was like, ‘Are you sure? Is this really going to happen?’”
That text came in early August. Knox went on to win that week’s Travelers Championship and Stewart finished sixth in a Challenge Tour event in Sweden. Knox believes it was no coincidence that they both played well that week.
“I think we were on a high knowing (the World Cup) was going to happen, especially me. It’s a massive, massive event for me,” Stewart said. “It’s been a huge confidence boost without hitting a shot, just knowing I’m going to be playing in it.”
Knox and Stewart first met while playing junior tournaments in northern Scotland. Knox was the first to commit to Jacksonville and Stewart followed suit after the coach, Mike Flemming, was looking to fill out his roster.
Stewart won eight titles at Jacksonville, compared to Knox’s three. Stewart was the Atlantic Sun Conference’s Player of the Year in 2005 and a two-time conference champion, while Knox’s consistency earned him All-American honours as a junior.
“I shot 71 or 72 for three years in a row. If I shot in the 60s it was a miracle,” Knox said with a laugh. “He could make eight birdies a round. I wasn’t capable of that at that point. He was better than I was in college.”
Their college careers ended in 2007. Knox decided to stay in the States to pursue his professional career, while Stewart returned to his native Scotland. Knox spent several seasons in golf’s minor leagues before playing his first Web.com Tour season in 2011, and has played four full seasons on the US PGA Tour since 2012.
The former team-mates do not see each other often these days, but they keep in touch via text messages and, since the birth of Stewart’s son last Halloween, FaceTime. Stewart attributes his success this season to Jack’s birth.
“You come off the course and you see his wee face, and it’s a very good distraction,” Stewart said.
He gave up professional golf for approximately 11 months in 2009 and 2010 and worked in a slaughterhouse, before deciding to give it one last shot.
“I took out a loan,” Stewart said. “I decided I’m going to give this a real go.”
He spent two seasons on the EuroPro Tour, before finishing 20th in the Challenge Tour Rankings in 2013. After that promising season, he decided to make swing changes in an attempt to hit the ball farther, but subsequently struggled to find the fairway and was on the cusp of quitting the game.
“If I played this year the way I did the past two seasons, I probably wouldn’t be playing golf again next year,” Stewart said. “At the start of the year I said, ‘If things don’t change, there’s no way I’m going to play the next season.’”
This year, Stewart went back to the drills and lessons he learned from Flemming, his former Jacksonville coach, and sent videos to Knox for input. Flemming stepped down after Stewart’s freshman season, but he continued to serve as Stewart’s swing coach. Stewart worked in Flemming’s yard in return for lessons. Flemming, who passed away in 2014 at age 71, also instructed Knox after Knox turned pro.
Now Flemming’s former students will reunited at the World Cup, thanks to a friend’s favour.