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Miles ahead: 15-year-old Russell keeps making history, this time on KFT

Miles ahead: 15-year-old Russell keeps making history, this time on KFT

Growing up in the shadows of TPC Sawgrass had its perks for young-er Miles Russell.

Russell, now 15 years old, is still considered a kid, but when he was still in diapers, his grandfather, whom Russell calls “Bumpa,” began taking Russell and his siblings to The Players Championship. Every year, Russell would post up between hole Nos. 16 and 17, not only to snag autographs and high-fives, but to also witness the pros hit arguably the most daunting wedge shot in golf.

“To live 10 minutes away and have that opportunity to watch those guys year after year, it was definitely inspiring,” Russell said last month over the phone while preparing to compete in the Junior Invitational at Sage Valley. “When I got a little older, I started to think, hopefully, one day I can be doing that and signing autographs for kids there.”

Like much of Russell’s young golf career, he didn’t have to wait long.

Last summer, a 14-year-old Russell won one of the American Junior Golf Association’s top invitationals, the Junior Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass’ Stadium Course; he birdied No. 17 in the final round and won by three. And during a practice round for this year’s Players, Russell walked inside the ropes with world No. 1 Scottie Scheffler, a moment that was filmed for the Tour’s social channels. That spot gained him a little more notoriety, and by the end of the week, he had fielded a couple photo requests and signed one autograph.

OK, so the signature was for a family friend’s little boy, but there’s still no denying that Russell is, no pun intended, miles ahead of his peers – and many teen golfers who came before him, too.

When he was named the AJGA’s Rolex Junior Boys Player of the Year last November, a day after turning 15, Russell broke Tiger Woods’ record for youngest to do so by 10 months and one day.

“If you try to be the best that you can be, and if that best can somehow break records, that’s cool,” Russell said. “To break one of Tiger’s records, honestly, I impressed myself, though I don’t know how many more of his are possible to be broken.”

Well, Russell has since added a couple more accomplishments that have upped Woods – and everyone else for that matter. This past week, Russell’s speedy path took him through Lakewood National Golf Club, just south of Tampa, Florida, for his first Korn Ferry Tour start, the Lecom Suncoast Classic. Not only did he become the youngest player to make the cut in a KFT event (at 15 years, 5 months and 18 days old he surpassed the previous mark held by Gipper Finau, Tony’s younger brother, who did so at the 2006 Utah Championship), but two days later he secured a T-20 finish, becoming the youngest on the KFT or PGA Tour (at least since 1983) to post a top-25.

That performance will exempt Russell into this week’s KFT event, the Veritex Bank Championship in Arlington, Texas; his teachers at the Providence School, where Russell is a freshman, will surely excuse him for another week.

After shooting 31 on his opening nine at Lakewood National on Thursday and firing a second-round 66 on Friday to make the cut by a few shots, Russell was informed of his first record of the week.

“I did not know that,” Russell said with a smile. “That’s a cool one to have.”

On Sunday, Russell then birdied seven of his first 13 holes in posting another 66 before waiting hours to discover that he’d be playing next week as well.

"It was a blast," Russell said Sunday. "Especially for my first one, you may get a couple weird looks, like, 'Who's the little kid on the range?' But, you know, everybody was so nice and so helpful with everything. I just try to kind of go with flow and take it as it comes to me, and I'm trying to just stay cool. I was able to hit some good shots in the right moments."

Russell is a native of Jacksonville Beach, Florida, and plays out of Atlantic Beach Country Club, which hosted the Korn Ferry Tour’s season finale for three years when Russell was in elementary school. Russell’s start in the game, though, can be traced to the local muni, Jax Beach Golf Club, before it was redone. He says he hit so many range balls, that it was almost cheaper for his parents to become members at nearby Marsh Landing Country Club, which the family joined when Russell was 7 years old.

“I remember I just loved to sit there and chip for hours,” Russell said. “When I was little, my swing wasn’t great, so my short game helped me a lot.”

Around that age, Russell, a lefty, was shooting under-par rounds from the up tees with frequency, including a 6-under 30 in a U.S. Kids regional event. (Russell lost that tournament to good pal Graden Lomax, with whom Russell now co-hosts a charity event, the Florida Sunshine Cup, that raises money for the AJGA’s ACE Grant and Nicklaus Children’s Health Care Foundation.)

“Even when I was 7, I just wasn’t afraid to go low,” Russell said.

Obviously, not much has changed. Before winning the Junior Players, Russell lost in a playoff in his AJGA invitational debut last May and then captured the Junior PGA Championship last summer by a whopping seven shots. He’s not only the No. 1 recruit in the Class of 2027, but he’s also No. 103 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking, and he’s reached as high as No. 69. Should he be named to next year’s U.S. Walker Cup team – that’s a huge goal, Russell says while excitedly revealing that he knows it’s being played at Cypress Point – he’d be the youngest player to play in that as well, by a few days.

And last week’s KFT debut almost wasn’t even his first PGA Tour-sanctioned start; Russell missed out in a playoff for a spot into this year’s Puerto Rico Open on the PGA Tour.

After growing a few inches the past year, Russell now stands just shy of 5 feet, 7 inches tall. That makes him about 10 inches shorter than one of the pros he tied Sunday, Ross Steelman, a rookie out of Georgia Tech. Russell carries his driver 280 yards, though his growing frame certainly has its challenges as it relates to the golf swing.

“Some days it feels great, some days it feels terrible,” Russell said of his swing, while downplaying his strengths: “Everything can always improve.”

Others can speak for him, though.

“He will never be huge but has elite speed and does everything well,” said one equipment rep who works with a ton of amateur players. “Mature. Gets it. … Quiet swag, knows he’s legit but knows he’s got a long ways to go.”

Said Tain Lee, the KFT pro who played alongside Russell on Saturday: “Kid can roll it. Looks like everything is going to go in on the greens.”

And another KFT player: “He walked around all week like he was on Tour already. Crazy impressive.”

The hype train is certainly gaining speed – and fast; have you looked at social media lately? – but Russell, at least so far, isn’t feeling much pressure. He points out that he’s yet to play a U.S. Junior Amateur; Woods won that tournament three times, and followed those wins with three U.S. Amateur titles, all in consecutive years. He also can’t talk to college coaches for another year and a half, and he won’t be able to earn non-member KFT points toward special temporary membership until he turns 18.

And when it comes to his biggest rivals on the junior circuit, Russell quickly says, humbly, “They all are. Anyone can win out there.”

“I think I just keep doing what I’m doing, play my game, and hopefully this [success] will keep happening at each level,” Russell adds. “I know it’s going to keep getting tougher, but just gotta keep working.”

Russell’s KFT debut showed him that when he plays well, he can compete with the pros.

And teeing it up in The Players one day? That hope is now even more conceivable.