RBC Heritage

Harbour Town Golf Links



mexico open

Two years ago Jake Knapp was a nightclub bouncer. Now he’s a PGA Tour winner in the fifth start of his rookie season

2038714353

Hector Vivas

February 25, 2024

One unavoidable fact about a void: it affords opportunity. Someone is going to fill it. The only hope is that it’s someone cool or deserving. Or both.

Say what you will about the strength of field, or lack thereof, at the Mexico Open at Vidanta, the outcome of year’s eighth PGA Tour event had a best-case scenario feel to it. Jake Knapp, a wiry 29-year-old rookie making his ninth tour career start, a young man who seems down to earth and looks to heaven for inspiration, scraped and clawed his way to a two-stroke victory Sunday in Vallarta, Mexico.

With a closing even-par 71 at Vidanta Vallarta that will have statisticians talking for years, Knapp outdueled fellow rookie Sami Valimaki of Finland in a battle of players just outside the top 100 in the world but very much inside the top quarter of the field—one that featured just four of the top 50 in the Official World Golf Ranking and four of the top 30 in the FedEx Cup standings.

In this new era in which “swing” events on the tour are the filler in the schedule while the marquee names stay at home counting their signature bounty, someone has to bring not only his game but also his lone redeeming commodity when he’s not in the household-name division of the sport—a great storyline.

That would be Knapp, the most unimposing bouncer since Patrick Swayze was checking for fake IDs at the Double Deuce. In late 2021, after losing his status on the Korn Ferry Tour, Knapp took a job as a bouncer at a nightclub for nine months. The schedule afforded him daylight hours for practice plus money for mini-tour and PGA Tour Canada events. He returned to the Korn Ferry Tour last year and a solid season enabled him to earn a PGA Tour card this year.

Last year was bittersweet, however, as Knapp lost his grandfather, Gordon Bowley, in April, after a two-year battle with colon cancer. His Papa was one of his biggest supporters, and Knapp would share a text or phone call with Bowley after every round he played. Knapp has his grandfather’s initials tattooed just below his left bicep, and in an ultimate gesture of affection and reverence, Knapp keeps the tradition alive, continuing to send his grandfather texts.

“Yeah, I had a little kind of conversation with him this morning and just talked about the day and wish he could be here to watch it and experience all of it,” Knapp said after becoming the third rookie to win his first tour title in this young season, equaling the number from all last season. “I know he's one of those guys that if I ever kind of got down on myself or if I ever got nervous or started doing something bad, he would just kind of whack me on the back of the head and be like, ‘C'mon, get to work.’”

Knapp worked extremely hard on a breezy afternoon. One day after posting a record front-nine 28 on the way to a third-round 63, Knapp already was hitting his 28th shot after his drive on the seventh hole.

2038729481

Hector Vivas

Essentially, he outdueled Valimaki with a better short game. In what became strictly a two-man battle, Valimaki was the steadier player in the early going, and through 12 holes he had erased a four-stroke deficit. But a chunked bunker shot at the par-3 13th and a poor pitch at the par-5 14th led to a bogey at the former and a disappointing par at the latter. Knapp, meanwhile, got up and down on both for a par and birdie, respectively, to restore a two-shot lead. Proficient at solving a Rubik’s Cube since he was a youngster, Knapp had a bigger puzzle to solve at Vidanta Vallarta, and he was up to the challenge, getting up and down for par seven of nine times, including five-for-five on the inward side.

A two-time winner on the DP World Tour, Valimaki, 25, closed with a 69 but missed a chance to put one last bit of pressure on Knapp on the par-five home hole when he sprayed his drive way right up against a barrier fence and was forced to take relief with a one-stroke penalty.

While Knapp found only nine greens in regulation, that discipline glistened in comparison to his efforts off the tee, from which he found just two fairways. Since 1983, when stats first were tracked, no player had won a tour event hitting two or fewer fairways in the final round. (Hey, nice of him to bring more entertainment value.)

“I just trusted myself,” said Knapp, who described his road from his days at UCLA to his breakthrough win as “bumpy.” It’s smoothed out now with a $1.458 million payday and berths in the Masters and PGA Championship. He also qualified for the year’s remaining signature events, including the Players. He has risen from 101st to No. 52 in the world. If he remains in the top 60, he’ll play in the U.S. Open, too.

More than once he referred to his promising new reality as “surreal.”

His grandfather would offer a different assessment if he were still around today. “Winner, winner, chicken dinner … that's his go-to. I know he would shoot me a text with that, and he'd probably say, ‘gars on me, cigars on me’ when I get home,” Knapp said. “He'd be pretty pumped. So Papa, thank you.”

Dang, that’s a good story. Though, in the end, it’s a reminder that while a void needs to be filled, some voids just never will be.