CARNOUSTIE, Scotland (AP) – Getting into the British Open was a reward in itself for Russell Knox. And then it got better.
The text messages kept his phone buzzing – from his wife, his nephew, his brother-in-law – as he drove back to his hotel. He looked over at the screen and kept seeing the same message.
“I was driving, so I just glanced at it,” Knox said. “I got to where I was going, and my heart was pounding.”
Knox, the highest-ranked player from Scotland, qualified for Carnoustie only when he started his three-week stint in Europe with a runner-up finish in the French Open. Then, he won the Irish Open by making a 40-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole to force a playoff, and then another 40-foot birdie putt on the 18th to win.
To cap it all off, the R&A put Knox in the same group with Tiger Woods and Hideki Matsuyama for the opening two rounds of the British Open.
“A man on form playing with his idol,” Knox said Wednesday.
The 33-year-old from Inverness grew up watching Woods set a new standard in golf. He was in Florida on holiday when Woods won at Disney in 1996, his second PGA Tour victory in two months as a pro. Knox became a huge fan, like most golfers his age.
“He’s like this mythical creature,” Knox said. “Even when I see him today, it’s like he’s fake because I’ve seen him on TV my whole life. So if you had said to me when I was a 15-year-old watching Tiger dominate that I would get to play with him, I would have laughed. And then if you had said we would play in a major, in Scotland, with you being somewhat of a sneaky threat?
“Not everyone gets the opportunity to live their dream, and this is it,” he said. “I’m going to try to enjoy every minute it.”
Woods, a three-time Open champion, is playing for the first time since St. Andrews in 2015 and remains the biggest attraction in golf by some margin. Matsuyama has been Japan’s biggest golf star for the last several years. It figures to be pure chaos Thursday afternoon.
“There will be thousands of Tiger and Hideki fans, and millions of Scottish fans,” Knox said, showing off his self-deprecating style that has endeared him to so many players on the PGA Tour.
He knows his obscurity, even with a World Golf Championship among his two victories at the highest level.
Knox, whose father is from San Diego, was barely good enough to compete for Scotland as a junior. He used a recruiting service to land a scholarship to Jacksonville University, and he stayed in Florida after he got out of college to play the mini-tours. It took him five years to reach the PGA Tour.
The first time he met Woods on tour was a few years ago at the AT&T National.
They were going to the bathroom.
“That was an interesting story,” Knox said. “I chatted to him. I thought: ‘This is weird. The first time I said anything to Tiger was while we were in the bathroom.'”
They finally had a proper conversation in the Bahamas two years ago at the Hero World Challenge.
Knox is not at Carnoustie to watch Woods.
He has been a regular at the majors since 2016, though he has never fared particularly well. He has made the cut only five times in 13 majors, though he tied for 12th last month in the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills. He qualified only by making four birdies on the last five holes.
So his game is looking up, and that makes Knox as excited as playing with Woods for the first time. The R&A has put Woods with a European all but three years in his 18 times playing as a pro, but it’s typically a European with credentials, such as Justin Rose or Lee Westwood, Henrik Stenson or Graeme McDowell.
“It’s been such a good summer for me already,” Knox said. “This is a nice way to get recognized. It’s nice to have been put in a group like that. You don’t get into the Tiger group playing average golf. It’s a nice pat on the back that you’ve earned this tee time.”