Colt Knost’s last few months as an amateur golfer couldn’t have played out much better.
In the summer of 2007, shortly after Knost finished his collegiate career at SMU, he qualified for and won the U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship in his first attempt. A month later, Knost added the U.S. Amateur trophy to his collection, then helped the United States edge Great Britain & Ireland to claim the Walker Cup.
Over a span of nine weeks, Knost, a match-play novice, posted a 14-0-2 record. He soared to the top spot in the World Amateur Golf Ranking, and joined Jay Sigel and the legendary Bobby Jones as the only golfers to win three USGA titles in the same year.
“I adapted to it really quickly and just had a lot of success,” Knost said.
The final opportunity for an amateur to achieve similar success begins Monday, as the 89th and final U.S. Amateur Public Links starts at Newton’s Sand Creek Station. A field of 156 golfers, including reigning champion Jordan Niebrugge of Mequon, Wis., will embark on a six-day marathon in which the winner will endure 36 holes of stroke-play qualifying and a 64-player, single-elimination, match-play competition.
The USGA will retire its Public Links and Women’s Amateur Public Links championships after this week and launch national amateur men’s and women’s fourball competitions in 2015. The APL, established for public-course golfers, has been played annually since 1922 except for four years during World War II.
“It’s been around so long, I was just shocked,” said Knost, 29, and currently playing on the Web.com Tour. “The USGA called me and told me last year that it was going to be going away.
“I didn’t know what they wanted me to say. It’s such an old championship. It gets you in the Masters, so it’s a really special event.”
A Masters invitation has been a perk for the APL champion since 1989. Knost left that on the table – and exemptions into the U.S. Open and British Open – when he decided to turn professional shortly after the Walker Cup.
“It was a really tough decision, because you never know if you’re going to get back to Augusta,” Knost said. “I talked with a lot of people that played professional golf and my family, and just felt like it was the best decision for me to turn pro.
“I was the No. 1-ranked amateur in the world, and my stock wasn’t going to get any higher. Financially, it was the right choice for me.”
It started with a special week at Cantigny Golf in Wheaton, Ill. Knost earned a spot in the APL match-play bracket with one shot to spare. Then in six head-to-head matches, Knost made just seven bogeys and was 13-under par over 66 holes against his final three opponents.
In the 36-hole championship match, Knost, then 22, defeated 18-year-old Cody Paladino 6 and 4.
“I just felt like my game was kind of built for match play,” said Knost, who has played four seasons on the PGA Tour and is in his third on the Web.com. “I don’t make a lot of mistakes. When you’re doing that on USGA golf courses that are really hard, and when you make a lot of pars and put the pressure on them constantly, you’re tough to beat.”
Knost’s APL victory was the first piece of the puzzle that allowed him to join current PGA Tour veterans Billy Mayfair and Ryan Moore as the only winners of APL and U.S. Amateur titles. Knost and Moore (2004) are the only ones to achieve that in the same year.
This week, competitors at Sand Creek will try to join a list of prominent APL champions that includes Tim Clark (1997), Trevor Immelman (1998) and Brandt Snedeker (2003). The championship has also collected local flavor over the years with 1964 winner Bill McDonald of Topeka, the late Monty Kaser of Wichita (1966) and Wichita-born PGA Tour player Chez Reavie (2001).
Former Wichita State golfer Eric Mork was a finalist in 1979, losing to Dennis Walsh. That year was the first that the USGA lifted U.S. Amateur eligibility restrictions, creating more access for public-course golfers. The USGA cited that in its February 2013 announcement to discontinue the APL and WAPL.
“It’s sad to see it go,” Knost said. “I understand it at the same time. It’s a special championship, and obviously, you can’t take the credit away from anyone who wins it.
“To win the (U.S. Amateur) that summer as well and be the only guy along with Ryan Moore that’s done it is just awesome. It’s probably going to end that way unless someone does it this year. That’s pretty cool.”