You may not know him as well as his best friend and Western Pennsylvania neighbor Nathan Smith, who played in his second Masters as an amateur this year. But Sean Knapp has been a force on the Pennsylvania and national amateur scene for close to twenty years, racking up victories by the dozens in his home state, and taking his game on the road and playing well in major invitational and USGA events. In his best recent season, 2008, Knapp finished No. 63 in the amateurgolf.com National Player of the Year points race, making the semifinals at the US Mid-Amateur and finishing T5 at the star-studded Terra Cotta Amateur. He also recorded a T21 at the Northeast Amateur, a tournament with such an elite (and young) field that just getting an invitation is an accomplishment.
Knapp, 48, is the father of two daughters, age 10 and 16. He currently serves as assistant coach of his eldest daughter's high school basketball team. Although the 6-foot-4 Knapp's passion in high school and college was basketball, (he didn't even play on the Indiana University of Pennsylvania golf team, but he did excel on the basketball court) it’s the game of golf that has taken him to some unbelievable places.
In 1995, for example, he advanced to the round-of-16 in the US Amateur, after a second round match play victory against Notah Begay III. His next opponent was even more famous (hint - he played golf for Stanford too) and the round was being televised on ESPN.
"I wasn’t really nervous playing Tiger,” said Knapp, when asked about playing the defending champion in a recent phone interview. “It was actually a very good match – he beat me 2 & 1.”
That summer, Knapp was already 33 years old, still establishing an amazing golf resume, and still working on a career in financial services, after deciding pretty quickly that professional golf was not for him. When I asked Knapp why he never took at stab at the pro ranks, after going head to head with players like Begay and Woods, his reply was simple.
“Not good enough.”
It's the kind of matter-of-factness that likely works well for Knapp when guiding his clients through stock market gyrations. (We spoke about the economy a bit, and he definitely knows his stuff.)
Had Knapp chosen a career as a club pro, he would have had plenty of opportunities to supplement his income. He's won the Pittsburgh Open -- forgoing the winner's share of the $100,000 purse -- three times.
It doesn't matter the format, match or medal play - Knapp gets the job done. He recorded victories at the Pennsylvania State Mid-Am four times (twice match play, and twice medal play, including last year) and the Pennsylvania State Amateur (medal play) once, in 1997. The State Amateur victory put Knapp’s name on a trophy that includes legendary players like Jay Sigel, Frank Fuhrer, George “Buddy” Marucci, and if you go back to the grand old days, quintessential amateur W.C. Fownes Jr., son of Henry Fownes, founder of Oakmont Country Club.
Knapp, who also has over twenty club championships, has yet to win one event the Pennsylvania G.A. added in 2004, the R. Jay Sigel Amateur Match Play.
In 2009, he was stopped in the finals by Nathan Smith, (1-up), showing that despite being close enough friends that Smith asked Knapp to stand up for him at his wedding, sometimes the two best players in the state are going to have no choice but to play each other for a championship.
A Pennsylvania celebration:
Knapp (center) with Smith (left) and Van Sickle
Later that season however, the friends went from opponents to partners. Smith and Knapp, who had been talking about putting together a “Pennsylvania dream team,” convinced Marquette University All American golfer Mike Van Sickle to stay amateur long enough to represent the Keystone State at the USGA State Team after graduating in 2009. It proved to be a winning formula as the team with one player in his 20's (Van Sickle), one in his 30's (Smith) and one in his forties (Knapp) brought the State Team title home to Pennsylvania.
“It’s special,” said Knapp in a post round USGA interview. “I have been close. It’s an honor to seal this one.”
Humbling words from a guy who -- at age 48 -- recently won his second straight Pennsylvania Public Links title, picked up another win at the Western Pennsylvania Amateur, and advanced through U.S. Open local qualifying for the 9th time. Knapp is heading to the Springfield, Ohio sectional on June 7 with high hopes that the 9th time is the charm.
“It’s a cliché you hear a lot from older golfers, but I’m really playing the best golf of my life,” says Knapp. “You go through phases in life. There’s a point where you think you can win, but don’t have the ability, then you know you can win, and you expect to, and where I am now is that I am confident of my ability to win, but winning isn’t everything.”
Sounds like a guy who has things in perspective.
- editor's note: Knapp posted 145 at his Sectional Qualifier, solid golf but 10 shots out of the amazing score of 135 that was required to take one of the three available spots at his location. Making the U.S. Open the "old fashioned way" isn't easy...