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Jeff Knox: The Masters marker everyone wants to play with at Augusta

March 30, 2016

[This story originally appeared in Sports Illustrated Golf+ in April 2016.]

In your dreams, you want to be Jeff Knox. Or you should want to, if you’re a low-handicap dreamer. That’s because Mr. Jefferson Boone Aiken Knox is living a good life in Augusta. A very good life.

The Augusta National chairman insists that a weekend competitor not go out as a single, so Knox is the lucky man who is hand-picked to play as a marker whenever an odd number of players survives the 36-hole cut.

Remember the 2014 Masters, when then world No. 1 Rory McIlroy shot 71 on Saturday, only to lose to his amateur marker by a stroke? That was Knox, your Masters McDreamy. “He’s the best I’ve ever seen on Augusta’s greens,” said McIlroy, who even after birdies on three of the last four holes fell a shot short.

So impressed was Rory that he sent Knox a nice note a few weeks later and requested a practice round in 2015, with the hope of gleaning information. (A case of shingles sidelined Knox, and they never played). And what is Knox’s biggest asset? “Local knowledge,” says McIlroy. “He knows every blade of grass. That’s so key—more than anywhere else we play.”

It’s no surprise then that Knox’s putting prowess has made him the preferred member host when Tour players, including Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, come to town in the weeks leading up to the season’s first major.

Says Kevin Kisner, like Knox a Georgia alum, “If the PGA Tour played every event at Augusta National, Jeff Knox would be on Tour. He doesn’t miss inside of eight feet.”

Justin Thomas has gotten to know Knox through the latter’s 25-year-old son, Lee; the two were teammates at Alabama. “The dude’s an absolute legend,” Thomas says of Jeff. “I’d take him over anyone in the world on those greens, hands down.”

Knox has teed it up in eight Masters, including the last five. Oh, yeah, it’s good to be him, and it’s not just because of that putting stroke. Here’s why:

• AUGUSTA NATIONAL MEMBERSHIP: He is in, yessuh. Knox can play the National pretty much any time he wants. MapQuest puts the commute from his Augusta home to the National at 2.3 miles, or about four minutes.

• GOLF: Knox has game. Even at 53, he’s the best stick at the National. He holds the course record from the member tees, a 61 in 2003. He won the Georgia Mid-Am three times but never the big one, thrice finishing runner-up in the Georgia Amateur. Lee bagged that title twice, the first time in 2010 with Dad playing in the same threesome.

“I gave him a big hug, and we kind of teared up,” says Lee, who now works as a sports agent. “He kept my score that day, so it’s pretty cool that both of our names are on the official scorecard.” That card is framed and hanging in Jeff’s house, a display of fatherly pride.

BAMBERGER: Augusta Chairman Billy Payne is always the most interesting person in the room

• OLD MONEY: Jeff’s paternal grandfather, Peter Knox Jr., helped grow one of the nation’s largest apartment-operating companies in Augusta and nearby Thomson. Then Jeff’s father, Boone, built a regional banking empire. Boone, who died in 2011, donated $2 million to Augusta State’s business college and raised $22 million to fund a Salvation Army center in Augusta.

• LOW-STRESS JOB: Jeff directs the Knox Foundation, a nonprofit institution in Thomson with $73 million in assets, according to a 2014 filing. The foundation supports local charities. His duties leave time for occasional golf at a certain club at the end of Magnolia Lane and at Augusta Country Club, Jeff’s other home course.

• TEE & CUP COMMITTEE MEMBER: During Masters week Knox gets up before dawn to help set the pins for the tournament. Steve Stricker, who drew Knox as a marker last year, kidded him about doing double duty. “I said, ‘No wonder you putt so well,'” Stricker recalls. “‘You know where all the pins are, and you already tried them out.'”

• THE EARLIEST TEE TIME ON THE SECOND WEEKEND IN APRIL: As a marker Knox has played 15 Masters rounds. (Trivia: That’s one fewer than Tony Lema but three more than Webb Simpson.) Though his score is unofficial, Knox has shot lower than his playing partners almost half the time. No one is keeping track, but I put Jeff’s win-loss record at 6-8-1.

He first appeared as a marker in 2003, and he has played with everyone from major champions to amateurs. The first year he played with Craig Stadler, the 1982 Masters champ. Stadler shot 79–77, and Knox dusted him twice. Nobody took much notice.

In 2006, Jim Furyk shot a Saturday 68 and said Knox “could beat half the field who made the cut.” The next day Sergio García was none too pleased with having to play with a marker. Knox clipped him by a stroke.

In 2008, after being outdriven on the opening tee shot on Saturday, Miguel Ángel Jiménez theatrically wagged his finger at Knox and joked (maybe), “You cannot do that anymore.” Duly provoked, Jiménez shot 72, five better than Knox.

In 2013, Keegan Bradley reluctantly joined Knox for Sunday’s finale and fired a 69. “I shot 81 that Saturday, and when I heard I had to take a marker on Sunday, I was bummed out,” Bradley says. “I wanted to play by myself, whip around and go home. Jeff was the nicest guy. I couldn’t believe how good he was. He birdied the 4th hole with the pin back right—seriously? His buddies were cheering him on. He’s a stud.”

The Knox gallery includes his wife, Catherine; the couple’s three sons; and friends and golfing pals. An annual rite, Lee says, is monitoring the cut line on Friday afternoon to see if an odd number of players will make the weekend.

What makes a good marker? Knox hits it straight (if short), plays fast (he and Ernie Els once toured the 18 holes in 3 hours, 39 minutes) and is unrelentingly pleasant. “The thing I’m so impressed with is that he’s over 50, he doesn’t hit it that far—he’s 30 yards behind me and hitting 3-wood into these holes—and it doesn’t faze him,” says Kisner. “He just gets it around the green, chips it inside six feet and makes the putt.”

Says four-time U.S. Mid-Am champ Nathan Smith, “That’s a big-boy course, a big ask from the tips for a marker in his 50s, but he plays it so well. He’s a nice, humble Southern guy and a great dad. He’s pretty special.”

Thomas tries to play with Knox when he’s in town, and in fact has penciled in a round with Jeff and Lee on the Tuesday of Masters week. “There are some holes [Jeff] can’t get to, but he knows where to hit it and he’ll get it up and down,” says Thomas, who is making his first Masters appearance. “I think the last time we played he was joking that he only hit a couple of greens, but he still made three or four birdies and got up and down from some crazy spots.”

You might wonder what Jeff Knox thinks about all the fuss. Well, the National has deemed he not discuss it. An interview request drew this official rejection: “Our membership does not seek out publicity through their association with the Club.”

Knox doesn’t have to speak. Over the past dozen years his clubs have done plenty of talking.