He is pure Pittsburgh. Sean Knapp played hoops at IUP, but got hooked on golf as a looper at Oakmont Country Club.
He quickly became one of western Pennsylvania’s top amateur players and remained that way year after year after year. It was the 55-year-old Knapp’s first crack at the U.S. Senior Amateur this week at The Minikahda Club in Minneapolis, but it was hardly his first rodeo in a United States Golf Association event.
Knapp built a pretty nice record in those first 40 USGA events and learned to enjoy the camaraderie that comes from competing at the top level of amateur golf. And he gained all that experience. And when a 20-foot par putt disappeared into the hole Thursday, Knapp was a USGA champion.
Knapp capped off a magical week in Minneapolis with a 2 and 1 victory in the scheduled 18-hole final over two-time Senior Amateur champion Paul Simson of Raleigh, N.C. The 66-year-old Simson had come into the final red-hot. He was just rolling people.
Knapp was the picture of consistency all day, making 16 pars and a bogey. Six of those pars won holes. Knapp, you see, had learned about match play from one of the masters, his friend and western Pennsylvania amateur rival Nathan Smith, a four-time U.S. Mid-Amateur champion and three-time member of the U.S. side in the Walker Cup Match.
“Nathan and I have played so much against each other,” Knapp told the USGA website. “There’s a formula and I’m well aware of it. I can’t always execute it. He can. It’s about being patient, not giving holes, and forcing your opponent to get uncomfortable.
“If you can force them into that level of uncomfortability, they might make poor decisions. I’m not saying that that’s what happened today, but certainly it kept my emotions at bay.”
Knapp also said that the hard work was getting to the final and that the exemptions into the U.S. Senior Open and the U.S. Amateur in 2018 he earned by reaching the final also relaxed him. The three-year U.S. Senior Amateur exemption he earned by reaching the final turned into a 10-year exemption when he captured the title.
Knapp battled to a 1-up victory over defending champion Dave Ryan of Taylorville, Ill. in the semifinals Wednesday afternoon. Earlier Wednesday he pulled out a 2 and 1 decision over David Nocar of Millersville Md., 2 and 1.
Simson, meanwhile, cruised to a 5 and 4 win over Matt Sughrue, the 2016 Senior Amateur runnerup from Arlington, Va., in the quarterfinals and then took care of Frank Vana of Boxford, Mass, 5 and 3, in the semifinals.
Three times Simson took the lead in the title match with a birdie and three times Knapp answered by evening the match.
When Simson won the first with a birdie, Knapp won the second with a par. When Simson won the fourth with a birdie, Knapp got back to all square by winning the sixth with a par. Simson birdied the ninth, but when he three-putted the 10th and 11th holes, Knapp won those holes with pars to take a 1-up lead.
Simson evened the match again when he won the 13th with a birdie, but Knapp got up and down for pars at 14 and 16 to take a 2-up lead with two holes to go.
When Knapp got it up and down for par one more time on the 17th, it gave him the match and the title.
He had lost in the semifinals of the U.S. Mid-Amateur in 2008 and 2010. He seemed particularly affected by a loss in the round of 16 in extra holes to 2012 to Smith, who went on to win the last of his four U.S. Mid-Amateur titles.
When you play a lot of match play, you build up a lot of scar tissue. All those tough losses brought Knapp to the 17th green at The Minikahda Club Thursday with a putt to win the U.S. Senior Amateur. And the next time Knapp tees it up with Smith, Smith won’t be the only USGA champion in the group.