AUGUSTA – Rory McIlroy’s recent trips to the Masters have resulted in him discovering uncharted territory to land a golf ball at Augusta National, from the quiet cabins off the 10th fairway, to a fence behind the fourth green, to the azaleas far up a hillside behind the 13th. He’s like Magellan on hallucinogens.
On Saturday, after barely qualifying for weekend play, McIlroy established another first: He turned club member and local amateur Jeff Knox into a folk hero.
“Go marker!” one fan yelled to Knox at the 15th green.
“Kick his ass!” another said at the 17th.
“This guy’s in the wrong profession,” somebody said at 18.
Actually, Knox’s family accrued its wealth in banking and now he runs a foundation. So chose well.
McIlroy is the one who too often looks at of place at Augusta National. After back-stepping over the cut line at 4-over-par – he was the last of 51 players to qualify for the weekend – McIlroy was outplayed by the marker Saturday.
Knox, who’s (unofficially) playing in his fourth Masters and is a former Georgia mid-amateur champion, shot a 2-under par Saturday. McIlroy was 1-under. At one point, Knox actually had a four-stroke lead but McIlroy birdied the last three holes.
“I thought he was going to be nice and three-putt the last hole, but he beat me by one,” McIlroy said, managing a joke.
If it was any consolation to McIlroy, his fiance, tennis player Carolina Wozniacki, followed him around the course and did not leave with Knox.
For the uninitiated: A marker is used when an odd number of players are in the field. A playing partner is needed to keep score and maintain the proper pace of play.
It just so happens that Knox, a 51-year-old Augusta National member, is better than most markers. He holds the club course record with a 61 (in 2002, from the member tees). He’s a two-time Georgia mid-amateur champion and finished in third place in last year’s Georgia Amateur championship.
Knox told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2012 that his goal is to play in the Masters as a competitor, which would necessitate him winning the U.S. Amateur or U.S. Mid-Amateur title. He has been a marker several times before.
“It’s the next-best thing to playing in the tournament,” he said two years ago. “That’s my ultimate goal. I’m running out of time to do that. This isn’t a bad second. It’s a lot of fun.”
Knox would not speak to the media after his unofficial round Saturday, likely at the club’s request. He has spoken previous years. Last year, when he was paired with fellow Georgia alum and defending Masters champion Bubba Watson, he called it “an incredible experience for me to be there, especially with a guy like Bubba who is really passionate about his championship here.”
McIlroy isn’t Knox’s first victim. He outshot Craig Stadler (twice) in 2003. He beat Sergio Garcia by one shot in 2006. (Garcia reportedly didn’t take that well. Big shock.) He also outdrove Miguel Angel Jimenez twice one year. He beat 2011 U.S. Amateur champion Kelly Kraft by two strokes. Last year, Knox was the spotter for defending Masters champion Bubba Watson on Saturday and former PGA champion Keegan Bradley on Sunday.
So he’s way past the point of feeling awed.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone putt the greens as well as he does,” said McIlroy, who was playing with a marker for the first time. “He was really impressive. I was thinking of getting him to read a few of my putts.”