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2021 U.S. AMATEUR: Knapp, Jackson Fall Short of Match Play



Palmer Jackson points right after missing the fifth fairway at Oakmont on Tuesday. (MIKE DARNAY/PGN)

OAKMONT, Pa. — They’re at opposite ends of their competitive careers, and they started on opposite sides of Oakmont Country Club on Tuesday morning, but their mission was the same.

Make up ground in a hurry.

After Sean Knapp and Palmer Jackson failed to take advantage of starting their U.S. Amateur stroke play at Verona’s Longue Vue Club — which played five shots easier than Oakmont in Monday’s opening round — they faced long odds in qualifying for the match-play portion of the tournament.

Heck, the odds were long before they started the week, since just 64 of the 312 competitors will make it to Wednesday.

But at the very least, with Notre Dame junior Jackson having played Oakmont more than a dozen times and 59-year-old Knapp having basically grown up on this legendary course, both men could dare to dream of a hometown comeback.

It was not to be.

Jackson, a 2019 U.S. Am quarterfinalist at Pinehurst No. 2, followed his 6-over 76 on Monday with another 76 at Oakmont, while 2017 U.S. Senior Amateur champ Knapp wrapped his 52nd lifetime USGA event with a 7-over 77 and an 11-over total.

Even with half of Round 2 still to be played due to a rain delay, they were assured by lunchtime of spectator status for the rest of the week.

“I felt like my preparation was pretty good, but I didn’t have the game I needed,” Jackson said after firing a front-nine 40 to finish his 36 holes at 12 over, several shots out of match-play contention.

Both Pittsburghers appeared to take the disappointment hard, but Knapp was visibly choked up after greeting family members behind the 18th green. He finished with a triple-bogey 7 in what could be his last crack at U.S. Am glory — although he did just qualify against much younger men at Sunnehanna CC.

“I played a decent round but I got nothing out of it,” said Knapp, who lives two blocks from the clubhouse. “But that’s Oakmont. It’s just so much golf course for me.”

Starting at 4 over, Knapp bogeyed No. 1 but birdied the par-5 fourth to get back on his feet. A double bogey on the par-3 sixth essentially put him out of it, then six straight pars to start the back nine sealed his fate.

Although the final hole was elementary, failing to carry a fairway bunker on 18 added an insult.

“I was 3 over on the front hitting nothing but good shots,” he said. “I was playing such good golf, but the wind came out of my sails on the tee ball (on 18).”

Knapp, who is 35 years older than the average player in this event, lamented that a player of his (ahem) experience level has to play almost perfectly to make up ground at a place like Oakmont.

Tack on the added pressure — both external and internal — and it was too much to overcome, even for a player who qualified for his 17th U.S. Am against much younger players, then finished a close second in the recent Pennsylvania Senior Amateur.

“Today I just wanted to come out, relax and have fun,” Knapp said. “Maybe shoot a 72, illustrate that it can be done by an older guy, but then (I) go and make a mess of it (on 18). Might as well have just hacked it around all day, but that’s golf.”

Knapp said he was flattered by the extra support in his home borough, which also included a USGA film crew that followed him on and off the course during the past two days. For a 14-time Western Pennsylvania Player of the Year, the fanfare is not exactly foreign.

“It’s gotten easier,” Knapp said. “I feel like I’ve been playing well, been playing well all year. But you have to play exceptional out here. You recognize the importance. You’ve got support from a number of people, so that’s all encouraging. At the same time, it’s always in the back of your mind, ‘Just don’t screw up.’ ”

He paused to chuckle: “I didn’t do a good job of that on the last hole.”

Palmer Jackson chips up to the third green at Oakmont Country Club on Tuesday. (MIKE DARNAY/PGN)

Although he has plenty of youthful vigor on his side, Jackson had his own stress to handle.

Two years ago, the former Franklin Regional two-sport star became the first Notre Dame player to make the U.S. Am quarterfinals in more than a half century. This summer, he made a run to the semifinals of the USGA’s Four-Ball Championship alongside a fellow Golden Domer in Davis Chatfield.

Jackson confessed that he might’ve been thinking a little too much about his desired end result in the run-up to this event. He also said he’s been battling a right miss, which unfortunately came into play Monday on Longue Vue’s 14th. A push into the junk resulted in a triple-bogey 7, which downgraded his opening round from lukewarm to ice cold.

“To be honest, I knew in the practice round that my swing wasn’t where I wanted it,” Jackson said after commiserating with family behind the ninth green. “I was fighting a right miss all week, and at Longue Vue a right miss is going to kill you. I actually did well on the tougher holes, but it’s the misses to the right that cost me.

“Usually if I have a hot putter it can balance that out, but I found those greens extremely difficult to read, and these ones not much easier.”

Indeed, with everything to do Tuesday, Jackson struck the ball well from the start, but much like Knapp, he left too many birdie opportunities on the table. By the time the wind picked up in the late morning, the chance to climb had passed.

“I think if I have to look back on this, I would have to analyze it, saying, ‘Don’t focus as much on winning. Focus on playing your game, not too much about the end result too early,’ ” Jackson said. “It’s easy to do, especially someplace you’re familiar with. I felt like my preparation was pretty good, but I didn’t have the game I needed.”

At least Jackson will have some friends to pull for the remainder of the week.

His frequent practice partner Mark Goetz, of Kiski School and West Virginia University, shot 6 under at Longue Vue on Monday and was 3 under through 12 on Tuesday before darkness fell. He leads the race for medalist honors by two heading into Wednesday morning’s resumption of play.

“I could tell his game was rounding into form coming into this,” Jackson said of Goetz. “Mine, I was telling myself it was, but I could see it wasn’t quite great. I just hope he wins the whole thing because he really deserves it.”

Also, Jackson’s four-ball partner Chatfield shot 3 over at Oakmont on Monday, so he was very much in contention to move on to match play.

“I tried to help him out as much as possible with local knowledge,” Jackson said. “I guess it must’ve paid off because he had a decent round here. Just gotta play well and he’s got it in him.”

So do most of the players here, and many more scratch amateurs across the country who missed out on qualifying. As Knapp can attest, every opportunity is precious, even if you’ve got a lot more golfing years ahead than behind.

“It’s a young man’s game,” Knapp said with a resigned smile. “Dare I say, give these guys 40 years and see where they’ll be.”

He gazed back at the 18th green and shifted gears.

“But what a treat to be here.”

Keep track of all the action at the 121st U.S. Amateur at our PGN liveblog!

A 15-year veteran of sports media, Matt Gajtka (GITE-kah) is the founding editor of PGN. Matt is a lifelong golfer with a passion for all aspects of the sport, from technique to courses to competition. His experience ranges from reporting on Pittsburgh's major-league beats, to broadcasting a variety of sports, to public relations, multimedia production and social media.

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