It was a contender for the briskest round Jason Day had ever played. The Australian, for all his talent, has a reputation for crabbing around the course as ponderously as a sloth on Mogadon.
‘All-Day’, his detractors call him. But when you find yourself the lone straggler who has barely made the cut, and whose only company is resident Augusta professional Jeff Knox, it pays to pick up the pace a touch.
Day cut a forgotten figure on Saturday, more a part of the scenery than an integral element of the competitive jigsaw. His Masters prospects had long since ebbed, after a second-round 76 so interminable that he did not even make it to the clubhouse before sundown.
As such, he spent his Saturday as an also-ran, a world No 3 wrenched incongruously from his customary place in the spotlight. It was the perfect stage, it turned out, for Day to show a more carefree side to his nature, as he reeled off four straight birdies from the 12th to lift himself back to respectability at three over par. And in under four hours, too.
His sidekick, as befitting the backmarker at Augusta, was Knox, a man who has not only accompanied Rory McIlroy, Bubba Watson and Sergio Garcìa in the same circumstances but outscored them all. Knox is not the usual careworn club pro, the type who struggles to maintain a two handicap outside his day job teaching 10-year-olds how to grip a seven-iron correctly. He has, as anybody who has learnt from him here would attest, some serious game, having once shot a staggering 61 off the members’ tees.
A fixture of Masters weekends, sparing those at the back of the field the embarrassment of playing by themselves, Knox has become quite the celebrity on the quiet. The 70 that he shot in 2014, to beat McIlroy by one, will do that for you. But it would be terribly infra dig for an employee of Augusta National to be seen revelling in the exposure.
For all that he has flanked a Who’s Who of golfing luminaries on their third or final rounds here, local protocol dictates that he stays scrupulously quiet about the experience. Day, like many before him, found that he benefited on Saturday from Knox’s priceless insights into the vagaries of this course.
After Kevin Na, another notoriously finicky player, found himself with Knox last year, he followed a third-round 85 with a swift, businesslike 68.
Day, too, was a man transformed from his earlier horrors. At the third, measuring 350 yards, he nearly drove the green. Moments later, he almost walked off the treacherous par-three sixth with a hole-in-one, striping an eight-iron to within 18 inches of the cup.
For all Day’s dismay at how his Masters campaign has unravelled, he can claim mitigation. He withdrew from the World Matchplay in Austin after learning that his mother, Dening, had been diagnosed with lung cancer and given 12 months to live. Indeed, he only decided to commit to Augusta once he learnt that her prognosis had drastically improved and that she would not need chemotherapy.
“I feel a lot lighter, in the sense that my mum’s situation is not weighing so heavily on my mind,” he said.
Day had toyed with the idea of bringing her with him from Ohio to Augusta, to help with her convalescence, but considered her too weak to travel. He has barely swung a club in anger these past three weeks, such has been the worry, but it looked at last on Saturday as if his distractions were dissolving.
After two torrid days in the wind, he took more placid springtime conditions as his cue to plunder with a back-nine surge. There was no danger this time of another global star being outshone by Knox.
The story goes that when Garcìa was paired with Knox, the designated marker, in 2006, they had a small wager on who would win, and that when the hometown sage prevailed, the Spaniard walked off without shaking his hand.
The great advantage of a few hours with Knox is that a player’s knowledge of Augusta’s subtle challenges, on the greens in particular, ends up immeasurably enhanced. McIlroy, for one, could not speak more highly of what he had seen.
“I thought that he was going to be nice and three-putt the last, but he beat me by one,” he said in 2014. “He clearly knows this place so well. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone read the greens as well as he does. He was really impressive.”
Belatedly, Knox, at 54 years old, is receiving the recognition his stellar, unassuming play merits. This year, he was inducted into the Georgia Golf Hall of Fame. It was a fitting tribute to one whose profound understanding of Augusta’s nuances has often been sought out by the game’s finest.
In recent years, Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Jordan Spieth have all tapped into his advice as part of their Masters tune-ups. Day is the latest to reap the reward, even if it seems much too late for him to mount a realistic challenge.
Knox knows every blade of grass in this august property and is usually only too happy to impart his wisdom. It helps, admittedly, that Knox has some significant wealth to fall back upon and free up time for golf.
His father, Boone, built a regional banking empire, while his day job as director of the Knox Foundation, a non-profit institution that supports local charities and has over £50 million in profits, does not consume his every waking hour.
Plus, after helping to steer Day to this creditable 69, he has yet another tale to last a lifetime.