FORT WORTH — Golf is a difficult game even when things are going your way. But playing the game for a living with a heavy heart can really be tough.
Such is the case this week for Russell Knox at the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial. Although the 28-year-old touring pro is having a good year financially and recently married his longtime girlfriend, he is laboring this week with a lingering sadness over the loss of his coach and mentor, former Tyler resident Mike Flemming, who passed away Easter evening last month.
A native of Aberdeen, Scotland, Knox plays out of Jacksonville, Florida, and came to know Flemming some 10 years ago when he signed a scholarship to play golf at Jacksonville University. Flemming was the golf coach at Jacksonville then and signed Knox sight unseen through a recruiting service. The two hit it off immediately and after finishing college, Knox continued to go to Flemming for instruction and guidance as he navigated the world of professional golf. He started on the mini tours and then graduated to the Web.com Tour and finally the big show, the PGA Tour.
Then after losing and regaining his card, Knox had a breakthrough this March with a tie for first at the Honda Classic in Florida, eventually losing in a playoff to another Russell — Russell Henley, a young and talented player from Macon, Georgia.
Knox was en route back to Jacksonville from the RBC Heritage Classic in South Carolina when he learned of Flemming’s death. Though Flemming had health issues dating back to the 1980s, when he worked in the oil business and lived in Tyler, his death came suddenly and hit Knox hard.
“Yeah, it’s a tough one,” Knox said while taking a break from the putting green after his first round at Colonial. “He was a great man who was both my coach and my mentor. He helped me become a PGA Tour player.”
Having played golf for most of his life, learning the game in his hometown of Dallas at places that no longer exist like the Bob-O-Links golf course and Hardy’s, a driving range on Greenville Avenue, Flemming was a student of the golf swing. He watched a youngster named Lee Buck Trevino hit balls and also drive a tractor to pick them up at Hardy’s where he began to develop concepts and theories about the swing that only the most knowledgeable could appreciate.
While in Tyler, Flemming played at Willow Brook Country Club and was close friends with Texas Golf Hall of Fame member A.J. Triggs and his son Mark. Flemming’s son Neal was also an accomplished player who played his high school golf at Lindale High School.
Flemming’s understanding of the intricacies of the golf swing proved valuable to Knox as he continued his growth as a player.
“Yeah, I mean, we called him Master Flemming because he was a true master,” Knox said. “He was very knowledgeable about the swing and practiced a lot when he could. He taught me some things that I had never heard from anyone else and it allowed me to improve my ball striking significantly over the time we worked together, which was the last seven or eight years. And he really made me the player I am today.”
Today Knox is one of the top players on the tour with more than $1 million in earnings this year and the 33rd spot on the Fed Ex Cup list. Playing in his first Colonial, Knox got off to a rocky start during his first round. Starting on the 10th hole Thursday, Knox found himself 3-over through his first seven holes but rallied for a 1-over 71 and then made a key birdie on his 16th hole Friday to shoot an even-par 70 and make the cut right on the number, 141.
“It’s a funny game, golf,” he said. “I hit some good shots my first seven holes and was three over. I had a couple of three-putts and missed a par-3 green by a foot and left the bunker shot in the bunker. It was just one of those bizarre days where I felt I hit the ball well but did not score. I was pleased that I hung in there and kept plugging on the back nine to shoot a couple under and finish with a 71.
“When you are three over after seven, you are a couple of bad swings away from packing up your locker early on a Thursday. So it was nice to hang tough and really play some pretty good golf my last 11 or 12 holes.”
On Saturday, Knox scored five birdies on the back nine to finish with a 4-under 66 and move up from 60th to a tie for 25th place.
Knox said that Flemming would have wanted to be in Fort Worth with him this week during his maiden voyage around the storied layout known as “Hogan’s Alley,” since the great Ben Hogan of Fort Worth won the tournament five times. The tournament has also been won by such golfing greats as Sam Snead, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson and, more recently, Phil Mickelson.
“We spoke a lot about the Colonial because he thinks very highly of this tournament and the golf course,” Knox said. “And he always said to me that this would be a great course for me because I tend to hit it pretty straight off the tee and can be a good iron player at times. He was very much looking forward to seeing what I could do on this course and he is up there looking down on me and it is going to help me out one of these days.”
Although Knox has only been around the Colonial course this week, it is already one of his favorites.
“This is definitely one of my favorite courses, even though I have only played it a few times he said. “You have to hit it straight and curve it both ways — it is really a gem.
“It is cool to play a course the greats like Hogan played, and played very well. It is kind of surreal, actually, to play a course where so many great players have played and has had so many great winners. It’s a real honor and I would love to join that Champion’s Board on the first tee one day.”
That may not happen this year but Knox hopes to get more chances in the future and like Ben Crenshaw once said of his mentor Harvey Penick, he has a 15th club in his bag for having known and learned from Mike Flemming.