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Remembering swing coach Mike Flemming

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SHANGHAI, CHINA - NOVEMBER 08:  Russell Knox of Scotland celebrates winning the tournament on the 18th hole during the final round of the WGC - HSBC Champions at the Sheshan International Golf Club on November 8, 2015 in Shanghai, China.  (Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)

SHANGHAI, CHINA - NOVEMBER 08: Russell Knox of Scotland celebrates winning the tournament on the 18th hole during the final round of the WGC - HSBC Champions at the Sheshan International Golf Club on November 8, 2015 in Shanghai, China. (Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)

Mike Flemming touched the lives of many during his unique life, including a former No. 1 and a WGC winner

    Written by Sean Martin @PGATOURSMartin

    Russell Knox had to compose himself as he approached the short putt that would complete his victory at last November’s World Golf Championships-HSBC Champions.

    “Don’t start crying now. You’re about to be on TV,” he told himself.

    He couldn’t help it. His thoughts turned to the coach who took a chance on a small kid from Scotland with a knack for scrapping together a score. The coach who’d been by his side for nearly a decade, helping him through the setbacks that preceded his PGA TOUR career.

    But Mike Flemming wasn’t there to share in Knox’s victory. He’d passed away 19 months earlier, on Easter Sunday 2014, from lung failure. He died three days after his 71st birthday.

    Flemming was a masterful storyteller, and it was those stories that impressed Knox when he crossed the Atlantic in search of a college. They had never met, but Flemming won him over with tales of attending school with Raymond Floyd, watching a young Lee Trevino hit balls and coaching Vijay Singh. A longtime smoker, Flemming narrated in the gruff, but lovable, voice befitting a former Marine from Texas.

    A victory in China, against a field that included Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy, was a perfect time for Knox to reflect on his coach.

    “He was so passionate about helping me,” Knox said. “If we were working on something and I did it correctly, he would start yelling and jump up and down and say, ‘That’s it, that’s it.’ He would go home and think about things we needed to work on. He was so invested in helping me improve.

    “I was so lucky to have him.”

    A relationship that started with an email to a recruiting service eventually turned Knox into one of the world’s elite players. The 30-year-old arrives at this week’s WGC-Cadillac Championship ranked fourth in the FedExCup and 33rd in the Official World Golf Ranking. He is Scotland’s highest-ranked player.

    His first Masters appearance is a few weeks away, and Knox knows the perfect way to honor his late coach. His caddie in the Par-3 Contest on the tournament’s eve will be Neal Flemming – Mike’s son.

    Russell Knox and Mike Flemming needed each other.

    Flemming, the head golf coach at Jacksonville University, had difficulty recruiting domestic players to a small Division I school. American high-schoolers had a plethora of options, many which offered fancy practice facilities and big-time football games.

    So Flemming used Florida’s sunshine as a selling point to foreign players unfamiliar with the collegiate landscape in the States. Knox fit that category. Climate was the only criterion he considered while searching for a college.

    “I was like, ‘Cold. Out. Cold. Out. Florida. Oooohhh,” Knox said.

    He grew up in the Scottish Highlands, in the town of Inverness. Soccer was his first passion, but he would tag along with his father Mike for weekend rounds at Nairn Dunbar Golf Club, which offered glimpses of the North Sea. Snow was rare along the coast, so golfers could play virtually year-round as long as they were willing to brave the cold and wind. A strong grip and a low draw were necessities.

    Trips to the driving range were rare. Knox learned on the course, which made the score more important than swing mechanics.

    “I never hit it very good, but I was able to kind of skank it around and shoot even par. I thought, ‘Wait a minute, if I learn how to hit the ball better, I should be able to beat most people,’” he said.

    And so Knox enlisted First Point U.K. to connect him with colleges in the United States. He had won local tournaments, “which at the time felt like winning the Masters,” he said. “But I was by no means a junior phenom. I played a lot more soccer growing up than golf.”

    He and Flemming exchanged only a few emails, maybe a phone call, before Knox and his father, who was born in California, traveled to the United States to visit Jacksonville. The small private school along the St. Johns River has an enrollment of approximately 3,500 students. The tiny campus still impressed Knox, as did the school’s golf coach.

    “He could talk your ear off. He was the best story-teller, the best joke-teller to ever have lived,” Knox said. “He had all of these stories that amazed me and wowed me. I grew up in this small little place where there’s no famous people or anything, and all of a sudden this guy is showing me pictures he has with these golf superstars.”

    The team’s only on-campus practice facility was a nine-hole executive course “with greens that Stimped at about 4,” one former player remembered. The team hopped around local courses for practice, but its home track was a 6,700-yard public course. The Dolphins were ranked 164th in the nation the season prior to Knox’s arrival.

    Flemming wasn’t one to sugar-coat things, and he didn’t try to paint a rosy picture to coax Knox to northeast Florida.

    “He told me it wasn’t going to be glamorous, but if I worked hard I would get better,” Knox said. “And that’s what happened.”

    Golf’s youth obsession means we tend to underappreciate the players who toiled for years just to make the TOUR. Immediate success may be sexier than perseverance, but more people can relate to the latter.

    Knox is one of the PGA TOUR’s shorter hitters, but also one of its straightest. He plays a steady game built on precision, not power. He had to take a big risk to get to the PGA TOUR, though.

    Knox spent three seasons on the mini-tours after graduating from Jacksonville. He was the rare player who could make a profit on golf’s minor leagues, earning more than $330,000 in those three years. He failed at Q-School each time, though, unable to obtain even a sliver of Tour status.

    “As soon as I got to (Q-School’s) second stage, I turned into a 10 handicap,” he said. “I was nervous. I put too much pressure on myself. Now I’m playing with bigger names. I think I was overwhelmed. I wasn’t ready. I had a lot of growing up to do.

    “I needed those moments of failure in order to improve.”

    He could’ve returned to the mini-tours in 2011 and likely made a healthy living for another year. The mini-tours weren’t going to help him progress toward the PGA TOUR, though. He had to find a way out.

    So Knox decided to devote himself to Monday qualifiers on the Tour. The costs were high and the odds were long. “I was willing to go broke,” Knox said.

    Players must pay for airfare, rental car and hotel just to get to the qualifier, where as many as 312 players compete for 14 tournament spots. A paycheck still isn’t guaranteed until a player survives the tournament’s cut. Knox qualified in his first attempt, though, and finished second in the tournament to earn an immediate promotion to the Tour.

    “We are no longer talking about having the tools,” Flemming said a few days later. “It’s having that mindset that says, ‘I’m good enough to play out here.’”

    Knox graduated from the Tour to the PGA TOUR that season.

    Flemming had seen what it took to play at golf’s highest level.

    Singh won nine times, including the PGA Championship, in 2004 and reached No. 1 in the world ranking for the first time. In a teleconference after receiving the PGA TOUR’s Player of the Year Award, he was asked for the best advice he’d ever received.

    “Mike Flemming was the guy … and he worked with me a little bit. He’s an old-timer, and he gave me a little advice, you just to go out there and find it yourself,” Singh said. “Keep it simple. You don’t need to get your golf swing by going through video cameras and all that stuff. … The old saying goes, ‘Find it in the dirt.’ I think that works best for me.”

    Flemming was involved in golf most of his life, but it was hardly his only passion. His audacious stories brought to mind the movie “Big Fish,” where a son tries to discern the truth in his dying father’s tall tales.

    “My dad, whether it was fate or luck, always seemed to be around (good golfers),” his son Neal said. “Growing up, I heard so many stories that they started to feel like fairy tales. Then I finally saw him and Raymond (Floyd) standing shoulder-to-shoulder in this golf picture from high school and all the stories had a little more validity to them.”

    The Jacksonville University job, like those encounters with some of golf’s greatest players, seemed to enter Mike Flemming’s life by happenstance.

    Never hesitant to talk to a stranger, he struck up a conversation at a driving range with Hugh Durham, who coached Florida State and Georgia to basketball’s Final Four before taking over a struggling Jacksonville program. Flemming and Durham, who also became the school’s athletic director, became friends. When Durham needed a golf coach, he knew who to call, Kinta said.

    Flemming was a caddie as a child in Dallas. He was classmates with Floyd at Riverside Military Academy, an all-boys prep school in Gainesville, Georgia, before enlisting in the Marines. In one of Flemming’s most memorable stories, he would tell how he was offered his first assistant pro job while hitchhiking, still wearing his uniform after being discharged from the military.

    He briefly played professionally, but poorly enough that his financial backer told him, “I think you better get a real job,” Flemming said in a 1990 feature in the Del Rio (Texas) News Herald. He took that advice, but didn’t follow a singular career path.

    He said he shagged balls alongside a young Lee Trevino while working at a course in Texas. Flemming also worked as a travelling clothing salesman (meeting his wife Kinta while he was in New Orleans on business); in the oil business; and scoured pawn shops for golf clubs sell to Japan, which was in the midst of a golf boom. He made $50,000 on that venture, she said.

    He had heart problems for much of his life, having two open-heart surgeries before 50. His poor health meant he didn’t deny himself the opportunity to pursue a passion.

    “From the moment I met him, he was always saying, ‘I don’t know how much longer I have. I’m dying,’” said Kipp Henritzy, who arrived at JU a year after Knox

    Flemming's love of literature may have surpassed his affinity for golf. He took night classes while an assistant pro in Texas to earn his bachelor’s degree, then became a full-time student to earn his master’s degree in literature from the University of North Texas. He graduated when he was almost 50, commuting to school with his daughter Jennifer, who also was a student there.

    “He felt like life kind of owed him, because he wasn’t going to live that long,” said Kinta, who was married to Mike for 42 years before his passing.

    Flemming was a voracious reader who enjoyed Mark Twain, John Updike, Ernest Hemingway, John Cheever and Larry McMurty. He was quick to offer book recommendations and loved to write stories. Knox has a manuscript of an instructional book Flemming wrote (Singh wrote a foreword). Flemming picked up the guitar later in life.

    The Flemmings also moved a lot, and arrived in Jacksonville in the late 1980s. Kinta taught English and Mike gave golf lessons and was an adjunct English professor. He had a passion for helping people, whether with their golf game, the guitar or their writing.

    “My husband never met a stranger,” Kinta said. “People either loved my husband or thought he was full of it.”

    Flemming, the old-school coach, appreciated Knox’s quiet confidence and determination.

    Knox had multiple moments in his career when he was confronted with players who were bigger and better than him. He didn’t despair, though. He used those times as opportunities for honest assessment, then continued his pursuit of improvement.

    “I have it in me, that determination to succeed in life and improve,” Knox said.

    He credits those close to him with instilling that spirit. Mike Knox was an entrepreneur who started a company that sold things like pool tables, arcade games and sound systems. Knox’s wife Andrea played professional tennis as a teenager, ranking around 400th in the world while playing the equivalent of the Tour. They met at Marsh Landing Country Club in Ponte Vedra Beach; Russell worked in the cart barn there while playing the mini-tours, and she taught tennis.

    Knox’s freshman year at Jacksonville was one of those moments when he was faced with reality. “I didn’t realize how bad a golfer I was when I came to the U.S.,” said Knox.

    He was one of three Scottish freshmen on a team that had just one returning player. They were confident heading into their first tournament after firing scores around par at Windsor Parke, a short public course, in practice.

    “We thought we were going to win. We probably finished almost dead last,” Knox said. “A couple guys shot in the 80s in the last round. We were just hacking it all over the place. We were like, well, this is not going to be as easy as we thought.”

    Knox’s 75.3 scoring average was still the best on the team during his freshman season. His countryman, Duncan Stewart (75.6), was the only other Dolphin with a scoring average less than 78.

    Success may have been sparing, but there were two benefits. Playing time was plentiful, and he had a friendly rival to push him. Knox was more consistent, but Stewart’s best golf was better. Stewart won eight titles to Knox’s three. Stewart was the conference’s player of the year in 2005 and a two-time conference champion, two accolades Knox never earned. Knox was an All-American (honorable mention) as a junior, though.

    The same Jacksonville team that finished second-to-last (56 shots behind the winner) in the conference in 2004, Knox’s freshman year, won the same title two years later. He represented Scotland that summer in the European Youths Championship in Spain, another eye-opening experience.

    “There were six of us on the team. I was by far the worst,” Knox said. His teammate, Lloyd Saltman, had finished 15th in the previous year’s Open Championship.

    “I told myself that if I don’t dedicate myself to improving, I may as well quit.”

    He did the former.

    Flemming stepped down from coaching after Knox’s freshman season because of poor health. He continued to instruct some of the team’s players, though. They’d do yardwork for lessons. Henritzy remembers blowing leaves off Flemming’s roof in exchange for his tutelage.

    Knox occasionally tagged along to his teammates’ lessons, but he didn’t begin working with Flemming regularly until he completed his collegiate career.

    “And then before you know it, it had been seven years and we’d grown extremely close,” Knox said.

    While his students hit balls, Flemming regaled them with his trademark stories.

    Henritzy described Flemming as both a “guys’ guy,” an entertaining companion to share a beer with, and a father figure. Players rarely used Flemming’s first name, referring to him as “Master Flemming” or “Professor Flemming.”

    “He was stern with you and expected a lot out of you. If I complained at all, he would say, ‘If you played better, it would take care of itself,’” Henritzy said. “He expected a lot out of us, but he also wanted us to stay within our limits.”

    Knox remembers a scene from his freshman season, when his group was spraying drivers around a short par-4 at Windsor Parke with water down the left side. Flemming had seen enough.

    “He went into one of our bags, grabbed a 3-wood and said, ‘This is how you do it, boys.’ He ripped it down the right-hand side and drew it back to the fairway,” Knox said with a laugh. “He made some comment like, ‘You guys are terrible. You’ll never be good.’”

    Considering his love of literature, it was no surprise that Flemming also devoured golf books. He’d arrive at practice with highlighted passages or photos of famous swings. Knox remembers a photo of Charles Coody, the former Masters champion, trapping the ball at impact. Flemming wanted his student to master one go-to shot, in Knox’s case a 5-yard draw.

    “He was obsessed with golf and the golf swing. If he thought he could read something that would help me, he did,” Knox said.

    Teacher and student talked after every round.

    “Golf got him up in the morning,” Kinta said. “As soon as Russell got done with a round, they would talk. Mike would always try to tell him, ‘You’ve gotta believe. You’ve gotta believe. It’s going to happen.’”

    Knox wasn’t the only one who benefitted from the relationship, though.

    “Their relationship kept my dad going the last seven years of his life,” Neal Flemming said. “I’d call him on Monday morning and ask what he had planned for the week. He’d say, ‘My week doesn’t start until Thursday.’ He couldn’t wait to see how Russell did.”

    He would’ve loved to be alongside Knox for his biggest win. It may have been Flemming’s best story of them all.

    Sean Martin manages PGATOUR.COM’s staff of writers as the Lead, Editorial. He covered all levels of competitive golf at Golfweek Magazine for seven years, including tournaments on four continents, before coming to the PGA TOUR in 2013. Follow Sean Martin on Twitter.

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