Two balls were visible on the 18th hole on Saturday — one sitting perfect in the middle of the fairway, the other in the left cut of rough.
It was early afternoon here at the Masters, and Steve Stricker sauntered up the fairway at the par-4 18th hole. Stricker, 48, had shot 2 over par through two days, and that meant he was the first pro off on Saturday morning and the first man to arrive at the 18th hole. As Stricker made his way up toward the clubhouse, he saw the ball in the middle of the fairway, then peeled off toward his left.
Stricker’s ball was in the rough, just feet from a line of trees. The ball in the fairway belonged to a man in his early 50s named Jeff Knox, who is not a professional golfer nor entered in this week’s Masters. Moments later, after Stricker had played his shot, Knox pulled a hybrid club from a plain green golf bag and fired away at the 18th green.
“Nice player,” Stricker would say.
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Meet Jefferson Boone Aiken Knox, the Augusta native-turned-cult hero at the Masters. The man who gets to slip inside the white ropes and tee it up at the Masters.
How does this happen? Per tournament tradition, the Masters does not allow players to play by themselves on the weekend. So when an uneven number survives the cut, tournament officials call in Knox, a local businessman and Augusta National member, to serve as a noncompeting marker and fill out a twosome with the last-place pro.
If this sounds like every hacker’s dream, well, yeah, it is. But Knox is not some 15-handicapper with some great connections. Last year, Knox was called in to play with Rory McIlroy on Saturday morning. When they walked off the 18th green, McIlroy had shot 1-under 71. Knox had fired an unofficial 2-under 70.
McIlroy was mesmerized.
“I thought he was going to be nice and 3-putt the last and we would have a half, but he beat me by 1,” McIlroy said last year. “He obviously knows this place so well and gets it around. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone putt the greens as well as he does around here.”
There’s a reason for this. The Knox family has a long history with Augusta National. Knox’s father, Boone, was a longtime member, and famously offered this quote in the early 2000s, when the club was drawing scrutiny for its refusal to allow women in its membership.
“We have nothing against women,” Boone Knox said then. “I love them all. I’ve got some myself. But we’re a private club, and I’m all for it staying that way.”
That policy has since changed, but the family have continued to be a presence in Augusta. Jeff Knox holds the course record at Augusta National — from the members’ tees — with a 61, according to the Augusta Chronicle. He is also a member at Augusta Country Club, which sits adjacent to Augusta National. In recent years, while serving as the tournament marker, he has topped Sergio Garcia and played with Bubba Watson and Keegan Bradley, among others.
“He was really impressive,” McIlroy said last year. “I was thinking of maybe getting him to read a few of my putts out there.”
On the course, Knox uses an unmarked green bag and his caddie wears unmarked coveralls. They don’t officially keep his score, so a group of friends from Augusta who followed the group had to keep score in their head.
“Did he birdie 17th?” a friend said, walking up the 18th hole.
“I’ve played in a good bit of competition, of course, but nothing like this,” Knox told the Augusta Chronicle in 2012. “The first couple of holes is a little nerve-racking. The first shot on No. 1, definitely. You just want to elevate the ball, that’s my goal. Get it off the tee.”
On Saturday, Knox shot 3-over on the front nine before scoring an eagle at the par 5 13th hole. He finished the day by shooting a 5-over 77 — unofficially, of course.
“Have you ever seen that commercial, ‘Don’t count that?’ ” Stricker asked a group of reporters after the round. “He did that on two. He hit it on the right.”
Standing near the clubhouse, Stricker said he had been prepared to play by himself on Saturday. That’s what usually happens at tournaments when there is an uneven number. But after shooting a 1-over 73, Stricker nodded his head in approval. He was happy to have some company.
“We had a nice time going around,” Stricker said. “It helps to play with somebody, especially of his caliber. He’s a good player. And I could tell he’s been around here a few times. He never misread a putt.”