JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – They were always close as friends. They used to be just as close as golfers.
Russell Knox and Duncan Stewart grew up 30 miles apart in the Scottish Highlands and spent four years as teammates at Jacksonville University. Their careers went in wildly different directions since they last played in the same tournament at the Atlantic Sun Conference championship.
That was more than nine years ago.
Neither could have imagined the circumstances for such a dream reunion.
Knox is No. 18 in the world, the winner of a World Golf Championship and a sympathetic figure this summer for being left off the Ryder Cup team.
Stewart, who worked in a slaughterhouse and drove a delivery van to help pay the bills, took out a bank loan to give his golf career one last shot, and he made it pay off. He won a Challenge Tour event in Spain on a sponsor's exemption in April, moved up nearly 1,000 spots in the world ranking to No. 315 and finally earned a European Tour card.
Knox never forgot his friend.
As the highest-ranked player in Scotland, Knox was allowed to pick his partner for the World Cup next week at Kingston Heath in Australia, provided his teammate was among the top 500 in the world. He picked Stewart.
It was a surprising choice for some because three other Scots are ranked ahead of Stewart.
It was an easy choice for Knox.
"We're going to talk about this forever, the rest of our lives," Knox said. "We're going to have the best time. It's going to be epic."
Knox first raised the prospect in May, and Stewart figured he was joking. But after Knox won his second PGA Tour title at the Travelers Championship, he sent Stewart a text asking him his plans the week of the World Cup.
"The last thing he said was, 'Let's go win this,'" Stewart said.
Paul Lawrie was among the first to raise questions about the pick, saying on Twitter, "Is Duncan Stewart the second highest-ranked Scot?" The former British Open champion believes the two best players available should have represented Scotland. Then again, only Knox and Martin Laird have earned more ranking points than Stewart this year.
Besides, the World Cup is as much about team as simply two players from the same country.
"Ever since I picked Duncan, he's only played awesome," Knox said. "He was better than I was in college. Our paths have gone in slightly different directions. It could have easily been the other way around. If the roles were reversed, he would have picked me."
Knox used a recruiting company to help find a college in the U.S., and while Jacksonville was not a golf powerhouse, the weather there was a wee bit better than in Inverness. His late coach, Mike Fleming, was looking to fill out Jacksonville's roster and Knox mentioned his friend from home.
Knox had a slightly better scoring average over their four years. Stewart won more tournaments and was the Atlantic Sun player of the year as a sophomore. Stewart made more birdies. Knox was more consistent. They even worked at the same country club in the cart barn to pocket spare cash for the mini-tours when they graduated.
That's when it changed.
Knox has joint citizenship (his father is American) and had a stronger financial backing. Stewart said he would stay until he could no longer afford it, and the money ran out about the time the engine blew up in his $600 car. He headed home to Scotland where he could stay with his parents and pay less in entry fees to small tournaments.
"If he would have stayed, I know he would have made it to the tour," Knox said.
Stewart took a hard road. He played the EuroPro Tour, one year missing his Challenge Tour card by 300 pounds. He tried to change his swing to get more distance and figures that cost him two years. He took whatever jobs he could find and stopped playing for eight months out of frustration.
Knox, meanwhile, made his way onto the Web.com Tour as a Monday qualifier, won a tournament, graduated to the PGA Tour and steadily improved each year until he broke through in a big way by winning the HSBC Champions in Shanghai.
"It was fantastic to see on the one hand," Stewart said. "And it motivated me on the other."
Stewart worked harder than ever, and then decided to take out the bank loan to give himself a proper chance. He missed his Challenge Tour card by one spot on the money list but saw enough progress to keep going. He started this year with no status on the Challenge Tour and wound up with his European Tour card.
"If you had told me at the start of the year I would finish 10th on the Challenge Tour and play in the World Cup with Russell, I would have laughed," he said. "We're both really excited."