LORTON, Va. – Sean Knapp has an air of quiet confidence as he competes in this week’s U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship.
The 51-year-old from Oakmont, Pa., has every reason to be exhausted, golfed out and ready for a return home. There are plenty of built-in excuses he could pull from the cobwebs after playing in punishing heat for three straight weeks. Instead, his start at Laurel Hill Golf Club represents his continuing climb in the pursuit of a national championship. Knapp may be the second-oldest player in a field where youth predominates, but his goals haven’t changed. He even trains for the test of endurance that is competing in USGA championships while playing on his home course, Saint Jude Golf Club in western Pennsylvania.
“One of the little secrets that I carry is that I play 36 on Saturdays and Sundays and I carry my bag most weekends. It kind of epitomizes [public] golf,” said Knapp, a broker for a financial services company. “But I do it mostly in an effort to stay competitive with the young players. I don’t know of many sports where people train for a half or a couple of quarters.
“So much of your summer—and the important venues—are predicated on 36 holes. It’s just something that I do for mental purposes, as well as physical. I feel good and it’s carried over through the past few weeks.”
His recent competitive schedule has included a start at the Frank B. Fuhrer Invitational, held two weeks ago at the Pittsburgh Field Club, and last week’s U.S. Senior Open at Omaha (Neb.) Country Club. There, he was three under par through the first eight holes, but was five over the rest of the way and missed making the cut by three shots. Though Knapp regards the experience as “spectacular,” he still regards his first-day lapse as a head-scratcher.
“To play the first eight holes in three under and be tied at the top of the leaderboard—I’m just not sure what happened,” Knapp said. “We had cameras on us for four or five holes [but] that wasn’t it. If you’re playing in front of a few hundred people, sometimes that’s more difficult to deal with than playing in front of a few thousand.
“It’s just a matter of—everything in my game right now is just kind of nuh. It could be better. I just went sour for a few holes. You can do that more here [at the APL]. You can’t do it out there. I wasn’t off by a lot.”
In the first round of the APL, and in the intense heat that has followed him in recent starts, he began the outward nine with two bogeys. It would’ve been easy to settle for a pedestrian round, but that’s not in Knapp’s DNA. Instead, he rebounded to make four birdies over his final nine holes, logging a 1-under 69 before following it up with 73 in Tuesday’s second round of qualifying.
Knapp knows from experience that the championship starts anew on Wednesday with the beginning of match play, and understands the inherent uncertainties that accompany that format. Being one of the 64 players left, his mind is clear going forward.
“I want to take it one step at a time. I want to sharpen my game,” Knapp said. “I got some things on those last few holes [on Monday] that I’d been missing out in Omaha. As cliché as it is, let’s get into match play, take it one step at a time, and once you start to get the momentum going through the match-play bracket, assuming you do win, anything can happen. I’m not going to back away from that.”
Knapp, who plays a nationally competitive amateur schedule, knows all about how to survive and advance in USGA championships. He has made 13 starts in the U.S. Amateur and has played in 15 U.S. Mid-Amateurs. Along the way, Knapp has developed a seeminglyinextricable link with his best friend and fellow Pittsburgh resident Nathan Smith, a four-time (2003, 2009, 2010, 2012) winner of the U.S. Mid-Amateur.
Knapp was the best man at Smith’s wedding and they draw inspiration from each other. The two met in the third round of last year’s U.S. Mid-Amateur at Conway Farms (Ill.) Golf Club, an encounter that Smith won in 19 holes. Knapp held a 1-up lead in the late stages before Smith won No. 17 along with the first extra hole to claim the match en route to becoming the first four-time winner in the history of the event.
As Knapp reflects on that encounter these days, one gains the sense that in the depths of his golf conscience, the heartbreaking loss still stings.
“It was brutal. I haven’t often, in the last five or six years, had a series of rounds where I’ve beaten Nathan,” he said. “I was really competing favorably against Nathan.
“One of the things that you recognize is, especially whenever I’ve played so much with Nathan, if you’re going to beat greatness—not just somebody who is good—great—you really have to take it to them and not be afraid. I was in that position. Unfortunately, it just didn’t pan out. The truth of the matter is, I probably wouldn’t have won the [championship]. That’s the kind of guy Nathan is. That’s greatness. He takes that match, digests it, goes on and continues to plow through people. That’s what you have to admire about a guy like that.”
Knapp is the winningest player in the history of amateur golf in western Pennsylvania and claimed this year’s Pennsylvania Public Links Championship. Part of his successes can be attributed to his grind-it-out rounds with Smith over the years, both competitively and in a recreational setting.
“Every time Nathan and I play, we want to beat each other’s brains in. I’m an ‘A’ type personality. I wear it on my shoulder. Nathan is a little more introverted, but I want to tell you, in terms of his competitiveness, he’s an absolute tiger. He wants to rip your heart out,” Knapp said. “He has that Freddie Couples ‘aw-shucks,’ but at the same time, I know what’s ticking inside of him because I’ve talked to him a lot.”
Knapp knows he’ll see no tougher opponent than Smith, no matter in which event he’s playing.
“I’m not going to see much more than what I see with Nathan,” Knapp said. “I might see some more distance ... but I’m not going to see more precision and skill that I see out of him.”
Knapp took up golf late by today’s standards when he learned to play at age 19. He was an all-state basketball player at Plum High School in Pittsburgh and played collegiately at NCAA Division II Indiana University of Pennsylvania before leaving his hoops dreams behind and petitioning the golf coach to let him join the team. Though he didn’t play in many events on a lineup loaded with talent, rarely did a day go by that he wasn’t at the team’s course practicing, playing and refining his game. He also worked as caddie at Oakmont (Pa.) Country Club, which will host its ninth U.S. Open in 2016.
Those days signaled the origins of his golf dreams and the memories are still fresh.
“I only dreamed in basketball that someday I would get to be able to play at a level in basketball like I’m doing in golf. It’s sort of like a rebirth,” Knapp admitted. “To transition from that sport over to this, and to still have some success at 51, is a blessing.”
Too experienced to be intimidated by younger players who could thrive on a bomber’s golf course, Knapp believes the mountaintop experience of winning a USGA individual championship is within reach (he helped the Pennsylvania team to the USGA Men’s State Team Championship titles in 2009). After all, he’s been readying himself for a week of protracted golf for as long as he can remember.
“I know this: I’ll be prepared if we have to go 36 [holes]. I’m not afraid of that. It could get to a point where it’s refreshing, believe it or not,” he said. “You get a renewed vigor and enthusiasm when you start to go through that match play bracket. That’s just enough when you’re playing for a national championship and all that comes with it.
“It will be a wonderful environment to be in and hopefully, I’ll get to taste some of it.”
Andrew Blair is director of communications for the Virginia State Golf Association. He is assisting the USGA this week at the APL.