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Oakmont's Knapp cherishes USGA win, outpouring of support

| Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2017, 10:54 p.m.
Sean Knapp of Oakmont watches his drive during the West Penn Amateur Championship on Tuesday, June 21, 2016 at Omni Bedford Springs Resort.
Sean Knapp of Oakmont watches his drive during the West Penn Amateur Championship on Tuesday, June 21, 2016 at Omni Bedford Springs Resort.

Sean Knapp always tries to look forward, but when he saw the flood of congratulatory messages on his cell phone after winning last week's U.S. Senior Amateur, he found himself reminiscing about the biggest week in his golf career.

The messages allowed the Oakmont native to not only look back at the week that culminated in winning his first United States Golf Association event in his 43rd try, but also to reflect on all of the friendships he has made in his golf career.

“When you get 1,000 text messages and over 100 voicemails, you're forced to look back,” Knapp said. “It's really a reflection of everyone that I've met in my past more than is on me. I'd wake up every morning and I wonder if this was just a pleasant dream. Now I'm facing the reality that I did win. It is humbling and it's such a blessing to get out of it and get the trophy.”

Knapp, 55, defeated Paul Simson, a two-time winner of the U.S. Senior Amateur, 2 and 1 in the championship match Aug. 31 at Minikahda Golf Club near Minneapolis.

The victory was a grind, which was fitting given the way things had previously gone for Knapp at the national level.

The week started with Knapp cracking his driver during a practice round. He brought one extra club with him to Minnesota, and it was a driver. After playing the backup he decided to go to the pro shop and get three different drivers, eventually settling on one after working them out at the range.

Each match leading up to the final presented a new set of challenges, but the final one brought the most difficult conditions of the week. Knapp bided his time around the course. He didn't make a birdie, but his steady play led to victory.

“I've seen people who have won British Opens without making a birdie in the final round,” Knapp said. “On the final day, the greens were much firmer, they were much faster, it was windier and that combination with the pin placements, which were excellent but very difficult, led to having to make patient choices.

“If you were overaggressive you were going to make a bogey or worse. Birdies were tough to come by. I went into it looking to come out with a ‘W.'”

While Knapp got plenty of messages, one friend was right there with him at the final: Ligonier native Dave Brown. Brown, who was the medalist in stroke play, caddied for Knapp in the final couple of matches after falling out of the tournament.

Knapp and Brown were rooming together in Philadelphia earlier in the summer at the Pennsylvania State Match Play semifinals when they decided to go to two different qualifying sites for the Senior Amateur. The decision allowed both of them to qualify and provided a lasting memory.

“(Brown) ended up being the medalist at in the 36-hole stroke play before the match play at the Senior Amateur, so he was playing the best out of anybody,” Knapp said. “After he lost he ended up coming on the bag for me, so that was pretty cool for him to be there.”

Winning the Senior Amateur was the cherry on top of a fine summer for Knapp. He also won the Tri-State Open, rallying from five shots down with seven holes to play, to win his first professional event in 17 years.

Knapp nearly won the West Penn Amateur for the eighth time, finishing third and was a semifinalist at the Pennsylvania State Match Play.

The road that led to finally getting a USGA trophy was filled with bitter disappointments. Knapp lost in the semifinals at the U.S. Mid-Amateur in 2008 and 2010, lost to his best friend, Nathan Smith, in 19 holes in the quarterfinals at the Mid-Am in 2012 and ran into Tiger Woods in the quarterfinals of the 1995 U.S. Amateur.

Through it all, Knapp said he wouldn't change a thing about the past.

“My frustration in life was golf and in the pantheon of frustration that's a pretty small thing,” Knapp said. “I'm not some person in a third-world country waking up without food. I didn't just lose everything like some of those people did in Houston (due to Hurricane Harvey).

“It's important to understand the context of it. Looking back, would I have ever taken a different way? The answer is no, I would not. I hope now that I've won I can use it as platform to help people that need it.”

The Senior Amateur win earned Knapp numerous exemptions. He's locked into the Senior Amateur for 10 years, the Mid-Am for three years, the U.S. Senior Open for two years, the U.S. Amateur for two years and a U.S. Open sectional qualifier next year.

Those exemptions are important given that Knapp almost didn't qualify for the Senior Amateur. He edged Paul Schlachter by one shot at The Club at Nevillewood in August to obtain the only qualifying spot.

“The qualifier could've gone one way or another and it went my way,” Knapp said. “I still remember that day very distinctly. It's so competitive and so difficult to even get to these events like the US Amateur, the Mid-Am and the Senior Amateur. To get a hall pass and to know you're going to be there is such a benefit.”

Knapp still has one more event left on the calendar, the US Mid-Am in Atlanta in October. It'll be his first trip to the Mid-Am since his loss to Smith in 2012. The winner of the Mid-Am gets an invitation to The Masters in April.

“When I left in 2012 I didn't know if I was ever going to get back there, so I'm going to go down there to play, have fun and rejoice the fact that I'm in the tournament,” Knapp said. “But once match play comes we're going to go for it.”

Jerin Steele is a freelance writer.

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