‘If it hadn’t happened to me, I wouldn’t believe it’
Reliving Knox’s improbable win in 1986 at The Honda Classic
February 24, 2020
By Sean Martin, PGATOUR.COM
- Kenny Knox won The Honda Classic in 1986 after Monday qualifying. (PGA TOUR)
Kenny Knox had to Monday qualify to earn a spot in the 1986 Honda Classic.
He shot 80 in the third round.
And he won the tournament.
“It’s almost unbelievable, really. If it hadn’t happened to me, I wouldn’t believe it,” Knox said recently.
It still ranks as one of the most improbable victories in PGA TOUR history.
He was the first Monday qualifier to win on the PGA TOUR since the creation of the all-exempt circuit; only three players have done it since. He remains the only player since the 1920s to win a TOUR event with a score in the 80s.
And he did it with an improbable series of Sunday hole-outs. He chipped in once and holed a bunker shot to salvage a bogey.
“The hole just kept getting in the way,” Knox, who was 29 years old, said afterward. Knox beat a field that included the World Golf Hall of Famers who’d win that year’s Masters (Jack Nicklaus) and U.S. Open (Raymond Floyd). Knox, meanwhile, spent the week staying in a stranger’s two-bedroom apartment.
It all happened in Knox’s first start in nearly five months. He started 1986 with just a sliver of conditional status.
In three previous PGA TOUR seasons, he’d finished 146th, 186th and 168th on the money list. He’d notched just one top-10, a T8 in the 1985 Pensacola Open, and earned just under $50,000.
It got so bad that fellow TOUR player J.C. Snead, Sam’s nephew, stepped in to help Knox with his swing.
“I guess he felt sorry for me,” Knox said.
Knox was playing well on the mini-tours in early 1986, but didn’t have the money to travel to the West Coast. He spent the first two months of the year clearing trees from a lot he’d recently purchased in Tallahassee, Florida. On weekends, he’d watch PGA TOUR telecasts while riding a stationary bike in his townhouse.
“I’m not sure I had ever run a chainsaw,” Knox said. “I started clearing that lot and visualizing my house being built there. I was always kind of a dreamer.”
He had just a couple thousand dollars in the bank and was struggling to make his mortgage. His sponsors had recently decided to stop giving him financial support.
“I said, ‘That’s fine.’ I always played better with my own money anyway,” Knox recalled.
And so, when the TOUR came to Florida, he plunked down $100 to enter The Honda Classic’s Monday qualifier. That dropped his bank balance to $2,200. He didn’t play a practice round because the course was too crowded with weekend play, but his 67 was enough to earn his first start since October.
Bad weather limited Knox’s Tuesday practice round to nine holes. He couldn’t play the course Wednesday because of the pro-am.
It didn’t matter. Knox’s 66 gave him a two-shot lead after the first round.
“Here I am, staying with a guy I’d never met before in his two-bedroom apartment,” Knox said. “He came out to the course to look for my score and he couldn’t find my name because it was at the top. He figured he’d start at the bottom and look.”Kenny Knox hits a shot in 1986. (PGA TOUR)
Knox’s new roommate wasn’t the only one who was surprised. A local newspaper headline read, “Knox (who?) leads Honda by 2.”
He led by one after a second-round 71. One of his birdies came after a free drop from an anthill built by fire ants. That allowed him to move his ball from behind a tree.
The wind started to pick up in the second round, which was just a harbinger of things to come. Freezing temperatures and high winds hit in the third round. Port-o-Lets were blown over by the 45 mph gusts. Knox remembers wearing multiple sweaters to combat the cold.
“Back then, our weather apparel was nothing. You wore as many sweaters you as could find and still be able to swing,” Knox said. “I was still swinging pretty well even with all the clothes I had on.”
He made the turn in 38, a good score for the conditions. He played his next five holes in 5 over, though. That included a double-bogey on 14 after the cameras showed up.
“I hit it in the right bunker. I looked across the green and pointing right at me was a camera and it had the red light on. Even I knew what that meant,” Knox said. “I bladed it across the green. The cameraman had to jump out of the way.”
It was getting dark as they wrapped up play. Knox made par after hitting driver-driver into the par-4 18th hole. He shot 80, but was just two shots off the lead. The average score that day was 79.25. No one broke par.
Tom Weiskopf, a 16-time TOUR winner, shot 86 while playing alongside Knox. Andy North, who won his second U.S. Open a year earlier, shot 84. Floyd, Hale Irwin and Fred Couples all shot 81.
“I went to bed thinking, ‘Maybe we’ll get rained out and I’ll finish fourth,’” Knox said.
That would’ve been a career-changing result. But his peers implored him to set his sights higher.
“Chi Chi (Rodriguez) called me Fort, as in Fort Knox. He said, ‘Fort, you can win this golf tournament,” Knox said. “I kind of stopped and looked behind me. I didn’t know if he was talking to me. I hadn’t thought about winning the tournament.”
He couldn’t avoid it after a magical start to the day.
It started with a chip-in for birdie on the third hole. He holed a 40-footer for birdie on the next hole. He was just short of the par-5 fifth hole in two shots. He wasn’t sure if his ball was plugged, but he was too nervous to call a rules official, so he chopped it out and made the 10-footer for a third consecutive birdie.
The biggest miracle came two holes later. He’d switched to a set of beryllium Ping Eye2 irons a month earlier and started using a new ball, the Maxfli DDH, that week.
“I didn’t know what the heck I was doing. I was just happy to be in the golf tournament,” Knox said. “The Maxfli rep told me this ball would go beautifully through the wind. The irons and the ball, it was a great combo.”
His 4-iron tee shot on the par-3 seventh was headed straight for the flag, but his ball flew through the wind and over the green, plugging into the back bunker. Knox’s first bunker shot came out hot and rolled into a lake. After a penalty stroke, he played from the same location. He heard a voice say three times, “Just make it.”
“The third time it was audible. I drew the club back and everything was in slow-mo,” Knox said. “The ball came out perfect, it checked up and trickled down into the hole. The crowd went crazy. My caddie was moon-walking. I was fist-pumping. It was a sight to behold.”
He made nine pars and a birdie over the next 10 holes. The tournament was in hand once hit his approach on 18 to 30 feet. He lagged to 2 1/2 feet, but missed the par putt. He had to wait and watch as Andy Bean and Clarence Rose both missed birdie putts that would’ve tied him. Bean, Rose, Jodie Mudd and John Mahaffey all tied for second, one stroke back. Mahaffey went on to win THE PLAYERS a few weeks later.
But they couldn’t catch Knox after a magical week.
"This proves that a lot of people on the PGA TOUR can win a golf tournament," Knox said that day. "This proves it right here."