Knox hits Fox with two killer blows to win the Irish Open
Scottish player sinks 40-footer for birdie on the 72nd hole to get into a play-off – and does it again in the sudden death
Scotland’s Russell Knox celebrates winning the play-off on the 18th during the final day of the Irish Open at Ballyliffin Golf Club. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire
There’s the orthodox way, and then there’s the unorthodox. How about sinking a 40-footer for birdie on the 72nd hole to get into a play-off...and then replicating the feat in sudden death?
Russell Knox, a Scot with an eye for the dramatic, inflicted such killer blows on New Zealander Ryan Fox to win the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open over the Glashedy Links at Ballyliffin Golf Club, a victory that also embellished his Ryder Cup ambitions.
If we’d come into the final round expecting a procession, with South Africa’s Erik Van Rooyen cushioned by a four-stroke lead, what materialised on the rolling sand hills was nothing of the sort: as the springbok stumbled Knox and Fox moved with stealth to the head of affairs. Knox’s monster birdie on the last gave him a 66 for 14-under-par 274, while Fox – who missed a 10-footer for birdie on the closing hole – shot 68 to tie him.
Then the real drama, and Knox – a player of calibre who won the WGC-HSBC Champions (2015) and the Travelers Championship on the PGA Tour in 2016 – returned to the 452 yards Par 4 18th, a hole which had wrecked many a scorecard through the four days, to again conquer it.
And just as he had done in regulation, it was via an unorthodox route, this time (the ball from his tee-shot somehow skipping over the bunker to finish on a downslope) playing his approach beyond the hole and rolling in another 40ft putt to huge acclaim from those among the 27,055 final-day crowd who had managed to find vantage points around the green.
As Van Rooyen’s express ran out of steam in his quest for a breakthrough tour win, others manoeuvred into the frame. Jon Rahm, the defending champion, suffered a triple-bogey on his second hole but manfully fought back with some stellar golf – covering the remaining 16 holes in nine-under, including a run of four successive birdies to close – to post a number (-12) in the clubhouse, while his compatriot Jorge Campillo then equalled the course record 65 to set the target on 13-under.
It was to prove a case of what might have been for the Spaniards, however. Instead, it was Knox and Fox who stayed on course down the home stretch, with the battle only won in extra holes.Knox sank his long putt, Fox’s agonisingly lipped out.
For Knox, who had previously lost his only two play-offs on the PGA Tour (in the 2014 Honda Classic and to Graeme McDowell in the 2015 Mayakoba Classic), the win earned him a €998,425 pay-day and the famous Waterford Crystal trophy as he moved back into the world’s top-50 (from 87th). Fox’s consolation was a cheque for €665,614 and a place in the Open Championship at Carnoustie. Zander Lombard and Andy Sullivan claimed the other two exemptions.
Knox – who had finished runner-up to Rory McIlroy at The K Club in 2016 – said of his putting masterclass: “That’s why you play golf, to hole a putt like that on the last hole. The adrenaline just comes out, and it’s the best feeling in the world to be honest . . . . it was obviously a putt that you’re going to miss way more times than you make, and for me to have made it twice in a row, I’m very lucky.”
Once ranked as high as 18th in the world, but who had dropped to 137th at the end of May, Knox’s upsurge in form – having finished second in France last week and winning here – has come after a period where he lost confidence and was also tinkering with equipment changes. “I knew starting this year I’d played good golf, and I knew that eventually something was going to happen.”
Finally, if a little belatedly, McIlroy’s putter behaved: he’d taken 34, 32 and 30 putts in turn through the first three rounds, but only needed the TaylorMade blade 27 times in the final round. Some night-time putting sessions in front of a mirror and, pertinently, a video collage from former PGA Tour player Brad Faxon – which landed in his in box on Sunday morning – aided his putting.
“[Brad] sent me a couple of videos of my body language after all my missed putts this week. So it was a good little reminder that attitude is very important out there on the greens, and it seemed to help,” said McIlroy, who insisted there were no technical issues with his putting method.
The Northern Irishman – in his last of four years as tournament host – finished with a 71 for 286 in tied-28th position, and plans to attend the tennis at Wimbledon before knuckling down to get ready for the season’s next Major.
Of the improvement in his putting in the final round, he added: “I feel like I’m on a good path with that. I don’t feel like I need to change anything. If I putt for four days at Carnoustie like I did today I’d be happy.”