U.S. SENIOR AMATEUR
Simson, Knapp to Square off in Championship Final August 30, 2017 | Minneapolis, Minn. By Scott Lipsky

Sean Knapp gives a fist pump after nearly holing out a shot on the 17th hole in his semifinal match with Dave Ryan. Knapp earned a 1-up win. (USGA/Chris Keane)

It will be a battle between one man trying to ascend to the top of the records books vs. another trying to finally add his name to it on Thursday, when Paul Simson and Sean Knapp square off in the final of the 63rd U.S. Senior Amateur Championship, at the par-72, 6,764 yard Minikahda Club.

The U.S. Senior Amateur is one of 13 annual national championships conducted by the USGA, 10 of which are strictly for amateurs. The championship is open to amateurs at least 55 years of age with a Handicap Index® not exceeding 7.4. It consists of two rounds of stroke play, after which the field is cut to the low 64 scorers for match play, which concludes with an 18-hole final on Thursday at 7:30 a.m. CDT.

The duo won a pair of matches on Wednesday, with Simson, 66, defeating 2016 runner-up Matt Sughrue, 5 and 4 in their morning quarterfinal match before nearly duplicating that effort with a 5-and-3 triumph over Frank Vana in the semifinals a few hours later. It was a pair of commanding performances by the 2010 and 2012 champion, who is trying to become just the second player to win the championship three times. Lewis Oehmig won in 1972, 1976 and 1985.

Simson, of Raleigh, N.C., lost just three holes during Wednesday’s double dip, and had a built-in advantage in his afternoon match. His quick win in the morning allowed him some extra time to recharge, while Vana went 21 holes in his quarterfinal win over John Pierce. On No. 1 during his semifinal match, Simson hit his approach shot from a fairway bunker to 15 feet, rolled in his birdie putt, and he was off to the races. A double-bogey by Vana on No. 2 put Simson 2 up, and he never led by less than that the rest of the way.

“Sometimes your karma is off after a long match like that, and he's got to come in, have a quick lunch, and then get ready to go out again in a hurry, whereas I had two and a half hours,” said Simson, who didn’t make another birdie during the match, but took advantage of several Vana miscues. “You know, it can work against you, though. Sometimes you can get stiff.”

Simson also birdied the first hole against Sughrue on Wednesday morning to jump out to an early lead, and birdies on Nos. 4 and 6 helped lift him to a 4-up lead through nine holes to put the match squarely in his control. An errant tee shot by Sughrue on No. 14 led to an approach shot that came to rest behind the green, and when he missed his 10-foot par try, the match was over.

While a Simson victory would mark the fifth time the championship was won by a player that is at least 66 years of age, a Knapp triumph would make him the first U.S. Senior Amateur rookie to win the championship since Louis Lee was victorious in 2011 at Kinloch Golf Club in Manakin-Sabot, Va. Like Simson, Knapp, 55, never trailed in either of his matches on Wednesday, either, but played a lot more golf than his Thursday opponent.

The Oakmont, Pa., resident won the first three holes of his quarterfinal match with David Nocar, but Nocar pulled even with wins on Nos. 5, 6 and 7. A stretch of bogey-free golf over the next seven holes put him 3 up with 4 holes to play, but Nocar, also a first-time competitor in the championship, ultimately had a chance to send the match to the home hole with a 12-foot birdie try. It just went begging, setting up Knapp’s match-up with defending champion Dave Ryan in the semifinals.

Knapp jumped out to a 3-up lead on Ryan, who was trying to become the first back-to-back champion since for USGA president William C. Campbell in 1980. He held the same advantage through 14 holes, but faltered on his first three chances to close out the match. After a ragged approach shot on No. 15 led to a bogey, he pulled his tee shot into the trees on the left of No. 16, which led to another missed green and another bogey. Ryan needed to make a downhill, 7-foot par putt to extend the match on No. 17, and connected, sending the duo to No. 18 with Knapp clinging to a 1-up lead. A lagged birdie putt to concession range was enough to seal the deal, sending Knapp to his first final in a USGA championship.

“I think for most of us, it takes an understanding of how important it is to be here, what's at hand. The chance may never come again in a lifetime. You can't take it lightly. It's so tough,” said Knapp, who reached the semifinals of the U.S. Mid-Amateur in 2008 and 2010, and fell to Tiger Woods in the 1995 U.S. Amateur in the Round of 16. “You need to play to win, and obviously you have to have the game to do that, and I haven't always had the game, but today I think I had a little bit of game and I had the desire.”

By advancing to the final, both Knapp and Simson earn exemptions into the 2018 U.S. Senior Open at The Broadmoor, in Colorado Springs, Colo. They also secured spots in the 2018 U.S. Amateur at Pebble Beach, and three-year exemptions into the Senior Amateur. The champion earns a 10-year exemption into the Senior Amateur.

For Knapp, all of perks that come with a spot in the final will allow him to really focus on the task at hand.

“A lot of the pressure is off now. A guy like me, I'm living on the edge, year to year, trying to qualify. I grinded my butt off to make it to here. At the end of the day, when you start to advance and you get to the finals, there's just a lot of gravy, a lot of carrots, so to speak, that come with it,” said Knapp. “Not that winning will mean even more, but tomorrow for the first time, I can focus on that as opposed to, wow, there's so much at hand here, so much at stake. I'm excited about it. This is what we all play golf for, and I'm familiar with Paul, and we'll just go get it tomorrow.”

Indeed, Simson and Knapp are familiar with one another. The two were in each other’s crosshairs twice in 1998, the first time in a playoff for a U.S. Open spot, and later that year, as opponents in the U.S. Mid-Amateur quarterfinals. Simson had the upper hand in both instances.

If things go as planned for Simson on Thursday morning, three times will be the charm, in more than one respect.

“I've been playing pretty well all summer and have been on the periphery of having a really good year,” he said after his victory over Vana. “You know, I've done a lot of good things, but it's just been a little bit off, and it has pretty much come together this week.”

Scott Lipsky is the manager of the websites and digital platforms for the USGA. Email him at slipsky@usga.org.

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