Jake Knapp: Living the dream…finally

By Tom Johnson

If your dream is to play professional golf, there are several ways you can succeed enough to earn a spot to play on the PGA Tour. The most common is to play well on the Korn Ferry, which offers an opportunity for direct status at the next level. 

Which brings us to Jake Knapp, arguably the latest darling of the PGA Tour, following his win at the 2024 Mexico Open in Vidanta in February.

Knapp is a 29-year-old Californian, born and raised in Costa Mesa.

The Knapp family’s first recollections of Jake taking any interest in the game dates back to when he was three years old; he would enjoy swinging a plastic club at a plastic ball and then chase it around the family home.

By 6, Jake was playing regularly at a course next door to the neighborhood where the Knapps lived – Costa Mesa Country Club (CMCC), the local city-owned muni. His father, Bob, fondly remembers those early days. It was a usual Saturday or Sunday morning when Jake, and his older brother Ryan, would find their way into their parents’ bedroom at around 5:30 a.m. begging to go out and play golf.

Bob, of course, would happily oblige, climb out of bed, throw both kids’ bags over his shoulder and head over to walk-on as the first group on the back nine. This became a regular occurrence.

It was always interesting, noted Bob. “Standing there on the tee, hearing some of the guys waiting in line complain about the ‘little kids’ playing in front of them who would no doubt slow them up. Then, the boys would each get up and stripe the ball down the middle of the fairway and the tee area would suddenly silence.”

Jake and Ryan both fell in love with the game. And the folks inside the pro shop and out around the range fell in love with them.

Now retired Costa Mesa Country Club head golf professional Brad Booth fondly remembers. “They were exceptional kids and you could tell that they were going places as golfers. I was always impressed with their demeanor; they were upbeat and always grateful,” said Booth, somewhat of a surrogate proud parent, and rightfully so.

Jake began those early days at CMCC working with Brad’s brother, Doug Booth, the lead instructor at the club, who grew a special fondness for the Knapp boys. He always found a way to allot whatever time was necessary to get both kids on track.

Then, upon his departure to Northern California, Doug turned the reins of instruction for Jake over to PGA Professional John Ortega, who has been described by many as a “sort of golf savant.”

Ortega has worked with Jake on and off for some 20+ years, regularly instructing him on all aspects of his game and also with his mental approach. Jake readily admits that “Ortega became a best friend.”

As Jake grew into his teens, he judged his successes by qualifying for and playing in the annual Junior Worlds at Torrey Pines, the various AJGA invitationals and the Western Amateur. 

When asked about his competition back then, Jake mentioned both Brian Campbell and Beau Hossler as two, who have since also made careers for themselves on the tour. “It wasn’t necessarily about winning back then,” said Jake. “When you played in Southern California and finished in the top 10 you felt good because the competition level and depth of the field was better than anywhere else in the country.”

Certainly one of Jake’s highlights came as a senior at Estancia High School. He entered the U.S. Open local qualifying at Newport Beach Country Club, and virtually lapped the field shooting a 10 under par 61 to win by six shots. 

No doubt, people began taking note.

College opportunities followed, and Jake was recruited by both UCLA and Oregon, before choosing to stay in SoCal to enjoy the weather and become a Bruin.

He loved Westwood, particularly his teammates (Jonathan Garrick, Manav Shah, Lorens Chan, Matt Pinizzotto and Preston Valder, to name a few), most with whom he regularly still communicates with.

Ryan and Jake at the 2015 Farmers Open at Torrey Pines

While at UCLA, Jake noted perhaps his biggest accomplishment was winning the Husky Invitational. It was the opening tournament of his junior season in Bremerton, Wash., at Gold Mountain Golf Club. He took down a very strong field that included many great teams and the likes of players such as Xander Schauffele to win the championship.

Less than a year later, Jake decided to leave UCLA and pursue his ultimate of making a run at the PGA Tour. However, he quickly found the road wasn’t necessarily going to be easy.

Jake played in mini tour events, before finding his way to Canada to join the Mackenzie Tour in 2016. Being honest, Jake admits it was a struggle. “I’d be lying to you if I said that losing hope never crossed my mind. But then I’d come home and play decent for a couple of rounds in local events that would get me back on track.”

In 2019, after three years out on the grind, Jake won twice – at the Canada Life Open and the Golf BC Championship a month later. He subsequently advanced to the Korn Ferry in 2020 knowing the PGA Tour was seemingly within reach.

However, after struggling for two seasons it was back to Canada for 2022. It was then that Jake felt a re-focus in his game and a new attitude. That would lead him to winning for a third time in Canada at the CRMC Championship over Wil Bateman in August 2022, and it was back to the Korn Ferry.

In 2023, his consistent play allowed him to finish 13th on the Korn Ferry Tour points list (Top 30 earn their PGA Tour card), including 10 top 10s, while making 20 of 22 cuts. Finishing solo-fifth in the Nationwide Children’s Hospital Open and T10 at the season-ending Korn Ferry Tour Championship ultimately secured his opportunity to move to the main stage.

When he was presented his Tour Card at year’s end, Jake had one goal in mind, “To keep it!” He shared that getting it was “Pretty cool. It was surreal because it was something I’d worked my entire life for; it felt like a dream. It didn’t happen overnight, and I had been grinding for such a very long time.”

The difficulty in keeping a card is that a new player outside the top 50-60 is not eligible to play in the Tour’s Signature Events. So, Jake set his goal for the season on just “making enough money in the other starts to stay out here, with a hope of perhaps qualifying for the FedEx Playoffs at the end of the year.”

The 2024 year started off in Hawaii, where Jake made a decent debut, just making the cut. But, it earned him a paycheck and he was off and running. Two weeks later at the Farmers Insurance Open in San Diego, Jake made his presence felt by finishing T3 at -11 and earning $477,000. 

A few weeks later in Mexico he shot rounds of 67-64-63, to take a four-stroke lead into Sunday at the Mexico Open.

He had never slept on a four-shot lead, particularly one that could change his life. “I’d be lying if I said I slept well,” Jake admitted. “I wasn’t nervous or anxious, I just kept running the shots (for the next day) through my mind.”

Sunday saw Jake grind out an even-par 70, calling upon a tremendous short game to lead him to a two-shot win over Finnish golfer Sami Välimäki. The win was worth nearly $1.5 million.

It did change his life. He’s now fully exempt for two years; he has exemptions that include all Signature Events, the Masters, the PGA, The Players and more.

His bank book has surpassed well over $2 million so far for 2024. And he’s now enjoying elevated company. He’s been paired with the likes of Rory McIlroy, Justin Thomas and Rickie Fowler in the weeks following the victory. He even flew the next morning following his win courtesy of Jack Nicklaus to play in Jack’s special two-day Pro-Am, coincidentally called “The Jake,” in memory of Jack and Barbara’s grandson, Jake Walter Nicklaus.

But the real question now is, can he have more success? “Bottomline: this is where the real work starts,” said Brad Booth with a chuckle. “But he’s willing to do it, so yes! This is what Jake loves.”

Ryan, Bob, and Jake

And, when you speak with Jake, he’s forever grateful to so many back in his hometown of Costa Mesa, including the guys in the shop at CMCC, obviously John Ortega, and Mesa Verde Country Club’s retired head professional Tom Sargent, along with so many others.

BTW, the proof is in the pudding that Jake is not forgetting the community from which he came. While playing in The Jake, one bystander repeatedly challenged him to successfully hit a shot here or there or to make a certain putt, promising a donation to his favorite charity.

Recently, a check for $11,500 arrived made out to Costa Mesa United, a non-profit youth organization Jake’s grandfather Gordon Bowley started some years back designed to benefit local youth sports.

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