Lake Forest, Ill. – It all started with a phone call.
Larry Smith contacted the St. Jude Golf Club in the hopes of setting up a game with Sean Knapp for his son.
Knapp had already established himself as a top player on the western Pennsylvania and national golf scene.
In the summer of 1995, Knapp had qualified for the U.S. Amateur at Newport Country Club in Rhode Island. On the second day of match play, he eliminated Notah Begay III, 1 up, in the second round. That same day, Knapp gave eventual champion Tiger Woods a tussle before being eliminated, 2 and 1.
So as Nathan Smith was establishing himself at Allegheny College, an area Division III school, Larry Smith figured that Knapp might be able to mentor his son.
“We hit it off,” said Nathan Smith. “I think he saw I didn’t stink. We started playing and having a blast.”
Over the years, the two have become inseparable, especially within Pennsylvania golf. Nathan even asked Knapp to be his best man at his wedding.
The two led Pennsylvania to the 2009 USGA Men’s State Team Championship along with Mike Van Sickle.
During that period, Nathan also became one of the country’s top mid-amateurs (25 and older). He first won the title in 2003 at Wilmington (Del.) Country Club. Then he claimed back-to-back titles in 2009 and 2010 as well as representing the USA at two Walker Cups (2009 and 2011).
Knapp has always enjoyed success at USGA events, but the 50-year-old is still seeking that elusive USGA individual championship.
He appeared on his way to perhaps fulfilling that longtime goal at this week’s U.S. Mid-Amateur at Conway Farms until he ran into Smith in Tuesday’s round of 16. The match required extra holes, with Smith prevailing with a par on No. 19.
“He’s playing the best I’ve ever seen him play,” said Smith of Knapp. “When I saw I was in his bracket, I thought, ‘Oh geez.’ He’s playing that good. I wouldn’t want to play him again.”
Earlier this summer, Knapp was one of two amateurs to play the weekend at the U.S. Senior Open. He played the third round with Tom Watson, but came up short to Doug Hanzel in his bid for low-amateur honors.
Exempt into the Mid-Amateur based on his semifinal showing at Atlantic Golf Club two years ago, Knapp was seeded 12th in the bracket. He knocked off Tom Werkmeister (2 up) on Monday and then Sammy Schmitz (1 up) on Tuesday morning to reach the third round.
Smith, 34, and Knapp had been matched up in state and local events, but never in a USGA championship. They nearly met in the 2010 U.S. Mid-Amateur final, but Knapp fell to Tim Hogarth in the semifinals.
It turned into an epic match. At the par-3 11th, Smith rolled in a 30-foot birdie that was then matched by Knapp’s 25-footer. At the par-5 14th, the roles were reversed with Knapp first rolling in a long birdie and Smith matching.
Knapp won the 16th with a par to go 1 up and immediately lost the lead at No. 17 with a bogey-4. Two holes later, he twice clipped a tree trying to reach the par-4 first green en route to a bogey-5, ending the match.
While Smith was thrilled to be advancing to a quarterfinal matchup against PGA Tour caddie Corby Segal, of Santa Clarita, Calif., he felt for his close friend.
“I hope it never happens again,” said Smith of facing Knapp in a USGA championship.
Just last week, they were playing golf together in the Pittsburgh area, with Smith riding in a cart and Knapp carrying his own bag.
“He’s an ironman,” said Smith of Knapp. “He’ll walk and carry his bag for 36. I’m usually in a cart. Last weekend … I felt like he was running a marathon. He power-walked 36 [holes]. He’s amazing.”
Next week, Smith and Knapp will join forces again at the USGA Men’s State Team Championship at Galloway National Golf Club in southern New Jersey. Recent Temple University graduate and two-time Pennsylvania Amateur champion Andrew Mason from the Philadelphia area will be the third member.
“He’s better than us,” said Smith. “He’s good. It seems like that is the recipe [for winning the State Team]. Get a guy right out of college. That’s what you need.”
It doesn’t hurt to have two veterans who are buddies, either.
Dennis Bull estimates he has come close to qualifying for USGA championships “eight or nine times,” including being the first alternate at the U.S. Mid-Amateur in 2009 and 2011.
But he finally broke through and got into the Mid-Amateur field this year and the Norwalk, Iowa, resident is making the most of his “rookie” appearance.
The 30-year-old posted a 2-up third-round win over Charlie Blanchard, of North Providence, R.I., to earn a Wednesday morning quarterfinal date with two-time champion Tim Jackson, of Germantown, Tenn.
Jackson certainly will have the edge in experience. This is the 53-year-old’s 47th appearance in a USGA event. He has also represented the USA in two Walker Cups.
“That will be exciting,” said Bull, a financial analyst for Exelon Corporation’s wind division who is set to receive his MBA from the University of Iowa this winter.
“I played good [Tuesday] morning [against Trevor Sauntry] and played good on the front nine [Tuesday afternoon]. But I made a lot of tired swings [coming down the stretch]. I tightened it up the last four or five holes, which allowed me to win.”
This championship has almost been a home game for Bull, who was born and raised in the central Illinois town of Pontiac. He attended Illinois State on a D.A. Weibring Scholarship. After graduating in 2005, Bull briefly tried mini-tour golf for about seven months with Brian Anderson, a friend who now is on the Web.com Tour.
When he moved to the Des Moines area, Bull decided to spend more time playing golf, especially with solid local competition from the likes of Gene Elliott, Mike McCoy and Terry Cook.
This year, he was the runner-up in the Iowa Match Play Championship, then he finally broke through and made a USGA championship close enough for family members to come and watch.
His parents drove up from Fairbury, Ill., and he’s staying with Luke Emde, a friend from school.
“It’s been great,” said Bull of the experience.
And the best part of his performance? By reaching the quarterfinals, Bull won’t have to qualify for the 2013 U.S. Mid-Amateur, as the final eight are exempt.
Odds and Ends
The flags at Conway Farms were at half-mast to honor the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks… Two professional caddies are into the final eight. Corby Segal, who caddies for Briny Baird on the PGA Tour, defeated Uly Grisette in the round of 16, 2 up, while longtime Pebble Beach (Calif.) Golf Links looper Casey Boyns, at 56 the oldest remaining competitor, edged past Michael Muehr, 1 up… Michael Mattare, of New York, is hoping for at least one more victory. Semifinalists receive a two-year Mid-Amateur exemption and the 2014 championship will be conducted at Saucon Valley C.C. in Bethlehem, Pa., where his father, Gene, has been the director of golf for the last 21 years… Should Canadian Garrett Rank win, not only would he be the first foreign-born champion, but also the youngest at 25 years, 8 days. He turned 25 on Sept. 5, three days before the event commenced.
David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.