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Costa Mesa native and PGA Tour rookie Jake Knapp wins Mexico Open to earn spot at the Masters

Jake Knapp holds up his trophy during the award ceremony after winning the Mexico Open.
Jake Knapp celebrates with the winner’s trophy after his maiden PGA Tour victory in the Mexico Open on Sunday. Knapp is an Estancia High School graduate and was a UCLA standout.
(Fernando Llano / Associated Press)
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PGA Tour rookie Jake Knapp lost a four-shot lead in seven holes and then held it together with a remarkable short game Sunday, closing with an even-par 71 to win the Mexico Open at Vidanta and earn a trip to the Masters.

Knapp said he still sends a text after each round to his grandfather, who died last year, and this message might require a lot of detail.

He didn’t hit a fairway until the eighth hole and found only two the entire round. He never lost the lead, but twice allowed Sami Valimaki of Finland to catch him. They were tied with six holes to play until Knapp took over, getting up-and-down on four of the next five holes, one of them for birdie.

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“I woke up in the middle of the night and I could feel my heart racing,” he said. “I was more excited to get things going. I wasn’t worried about performing — maybe I should have been.”

Tee-to-green, Knapp had his worst performance. But he spent extra time Saturday night on his short game, and it won the day for him.

“We talked about it last night ... if the ball-striking is off, we’re going to have to trust our hands. And we did that, grinding out some pretty tough pars,” he said.

It wasn’t easy until the end.

Another big par save on the par-three 17th gave Knapp a two-shot lead going to the par-five closing hole. Valimaki, needing eagle to have a chance, hit his drive down the right side, off a cart path and it nestled next to a boundary fence. He had to take a penalty drop, effectively ending his chances.

Valimaki made par for a 69 to finish runner-up, still a big boost to his rookie season. Valimaki was among the leading 10 players from the European tour to earn PGA Tour cards this year.

“Maybe just a couple more putts drop in,” Valimaki said. “I feel like I have the game to win over here. It just wasn’t this Sunday.”

Knapp, who finished at 19-under 265, won in his fifth start of his rookie season. Along with winning $1,458,000 and moving into the top 10 in the FedEx Cup, the 29-year-old Californian is headed to the Masters and PGA Championship. He also gets into the remaining five $20 million signature events, starting with Bay Hill in two weeks.

It was a big turnaround for the former UCLA player and Costa Mesa native who leans on a pair of initials.

One of them is LTD, an acronym he and his older brother have been using for years that means, “Living The Dream.” The other initials are tattooed on the inside of his left arm — GSFB, which stands for Gordon Sydney Frederick Bowley, his grandfather who died last year.

Jake Knapp hits off the 11th tee during the final round of the Mexico Open on Sunday.
(Fernando Llano / Associated Press)

Playing golf at the highest level was a dream they shared, and Knapp had to choke back emotions talking about him, apologizing because he had never been asked publicly about his grandfather.

“Papa, thank you,” Knapp said, pointing to the sky as he walked off the 18th green, soaked after friends and players doused him with water after he tapped in for par.

Knapp was hopeful of the outcome. He didn’t imagine how he would get to the finish line.

Staked to a four-shot lead, he made bogey on the opening hole with a weak chip. He had to save par on the next hole after another pulled tee shot. The third drive was the worst, a hook some 50 yards left of the fairway into the water, leading to another bogey.

Three holes into the final round, his lead already was down to two.

“I didn’t have my best stuff today, that’s for sure,” Knapp said. “I knew I was going to be a nervous wreck. I knew it was going to be tough.”

Hideki Matsuyama sets the Riviera Country Club record for the lowest closing round by a winner Sunday in the Genesis Invitational.

Feb. 18, 2024

It all turned in Knapp’s favor down the stretch. Valimaki failed to convert a 10-foot par putt after hitting into a bunker on 13, while Knapp saved par from short of the green. On the par-five 14th, Knapp hit a superb pitch to a foot for birdie, while Valimaki hit a poor chip to 25 feet and failed to make birdie.

That gave Knapp a two-shot cushion, and he kept it with bold par saves on the 16th and 17th holes, and then Valimaki allowed for Knapp to enjoy the walk up the 18th.

“Super pumped how I played the finishing stretch,” Knapp said. “Just grinded it out.”

Knapp, who came into the week at No. 101 in the world, became the seventh PGA Tour winner in eight tournaments to start the year who was outside the top 50.

Stephan Jaeger (65), C.T. Pan (65) and Justin Lower (68) tied for third.

Knapp spent four seasons on the Canadian tour and two on the Korn Ferry Tour until finally getting a PGA Tour card. He once worked as a bouncer when he needed daytime hours to practice and cash to pay entry fees.

“Bumpy to say the last,” Knapp said about his career path. “But I wouldn’t have it any other way. If I look back on my career as a whole, I always struggle the first jump on. Now that I feel my feet are under me, I know myself and what I’m doing, it feels like the right time.”

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