Colt Knost: The Apprenticeship of a PGA Tour Pro

There is a certain level of expectations for amateur phenoms when they finally turn pro. Because they were so good at the amateur level, the common thinking is that they’ll just walk right out onto the PGA Tour and do well.

Oh, everybody knows they’re going to get their noses a little bloodied, but they also know that it’s just a matter of time before they get settled in and make a lot of money. But nobody ever thinks that it’s going to take five years.

Colt Knost, playing out of SMU, was one of those “can’t miss” wonders in 2007. He won the U.S. Amateur, the U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship and led the U.S. to a victory in the Walker Cup, joining Bobby Jones (1930) and Jay Sigel (1983) as the only players to win three USGA events in a season. And he was one of just six players to win two USGA individual tournaments in a season.

That was enough evidence for him. By then, he was ranked as the top amateur in the country. What was left to prove? But by turning pro after the Walker Cup, he effectively turned down the automatic invitations the U.S. Amateur Champion receives to play in the 2008 Masters, U.S. Open and British Open.

But the best he could do in the 2007 Q-School was a T85. That was 60 spots out of earning his Tour card, but good enough to earn a Nationwide card for 2008.

And you would have to say that he had a great year that first year on the Nationwide. He won twice early, the first in May and the second in July. Win a third in a year and it’s an automatic “battlefield promotion” to the PGA Tour. He had to have been dying the rest of the year waiting for that third win because, until he got to the year-end Nationwide Tour Championship, the best finish he could manage was a T23. But the T3 in the Tour finale solidified his place on the money list; the top 25 guys earn their PGA Tour cards.

So with all that good play, you’d think it would be his time to shine in 2009, right? Who knows what stunted his play that year. He also got five sponsor’s exemptions in 2008; could it have been diminished confidence because he missed the cut in four of them and only managed a T36 in the “opposite field event” in Cancun? When you expect to burn the house down and then you don’t, it can be sobering. He only made 11 of 24 cuts and $181,000 from those mediocre finishes; he only had 1 top-25 finish. He also tried two Nationwide events late in the year and missed the cut in both. No surprise that he could only manage a T116 at Q-School and found himself back on the Nationwide Tour in 2010.

And while he missed 10 of 26 cuts, he made hay in the other 16 with a 2nd, two 3rds, four top 10s and eight top 25s. And the $261,000 he won put him in the top 25 for the year and back on the PGA Tour.

But 2011 was another sketchy year. He missed 15 of 27 cuts, made only $297,000 when the guy who finished in the golden, 125th spot on the money list made $668,000. But the worst thing, the very worst thing, was that he finished T27 at Q-School, just outside the top 25 to go back to the Tour. It meant so much, so much, he couldn’t help himself and he broke down as the field was finishing and he knew he was going to be going backward again instead of forward. It was a crusher.

But then, just like in a cheesy Hollywood movie, his fate changed in an instant. There were two guys who finished in the top 25 who were already exempt onto the PGA Tour; they were only in the field trying to improve their positions from what their Nationwide priority numbers were. The higher your priority number, the more tournaments you get into early in the year.

I can’t remember whether Knost cried more when he found out that, because of those two guys, the number of cards would be extended to 27 or not. But I would have.

And so here we are in 2012, Knost has played in eight events and made six cuts. They’ve all been mediocre again except for Cancun where he had a solid T3.

But guess what? After two rounds at the RBC Heritage on the Harbour Town Golf Links, Knost has the 36-hole lead by two shots. He shot 4 and 5-under and has only made one bogey, way back on Thursday’s third hole.

You know, it’s been a really solid two days for me. Definitely got on the lucky side of the draw with the wind. And I guess it was a little cold [Thursday] morning I heard. Very pleased with how I’m playing right now, striking it well, and making a few putts. I love Harbour Town, it’s one of the favorite courses all year. It sets up well for me and I’m looking forward to the weekend.

And he’s not really clear on the details of why he’s been the most successful player so far:

Honestly I’m just doing everything really solid. I feel like I’m driving it really well. I don’t know how many fairways I’ve hit or greens, but I know that I have not been in very much trouble. I haven’t short-sided myself much this week, which is huge out here. When I have missed the green I felt like I’ve been able to putt from the closely mown areas. I’m minimizing my mistakes. And I take advantage when I have a short iron into most of the holes.

This place is still really tough. The wind started blowing at the end of the day today. It swirled so much out there, it’s hard. You never know where the wind is coming from.

And he reflected back on why it’s taken him a little longer to develop as a pro:

I don’t really know why it happened that way. Like I said, I had a great amateur career, and I came out on the Nationwide Tour, which I felt was the best spot for me at the time. I won twice quickly. I felt like I was ready for this level out here, and apparently I wasn’t. I don’t know if I just didn’t continue with the same work ethic or not or I didn’t have the belief, but it was a struggle for a few years out here. But now I feel like I’m starting to get my game back where I like it, and I’m starting to play really well, I’m starting to play really consistent.

I had one good finish this year, but I’m making a lot of cuts, which is a step in the right direction for me. Today I felt so comfortable out there being around the lead, even though it’s only Friday. I think I’m going to feel great this weekend.

And you could just sense his maturity as a player when he said that he didn’t get to the lead because he was playing conservatively, but because he played smart:

You know, the greens are so small out here, you can’t really play conservative. If you hit the green, you’re going to have 15, 20 feet. I feel like there’s a few holes you have to get through, like No. 8 for example is a tough one. 4 is tough. All the par-3s are very tough out here. It’s kind of like you take three on all of them and run.

When I have a good [yardage] and it’s a green light to me, I’m going. These guys are going to shoot low scores out here. They’re too good. They’re way too good to play conservative. And I’m just trying to take advantage of my opportunities when I have them. And I did that for the most part today.

And when he was asked to reflect back on his emotional Q-School reaction as a measure of what a PGA Tour win would mean to him, he nicely encapsulated the arc of his career in these few words:

Yeah, you know, I mean, a win is obviously my goal. I mean, one of my goals this year is to win. I got kind of lucky there at Q-school with the way I finished, and I was emotional about it and I’ll be the first to admit it. My caddie said, “This is going to make you better,” and I feel like it has. I’m stronger mentally now. I’m happy with how my game is and I’m happy with how I’m progressing. I have many goals this year, but winning is one of them. But there’s a long way to go. I like my chances, and I love the way I’m playing right now.

Who knows how the weekend will end for him, but when you know what he’s been through over the last four and a half years, he’s an easy guy to root for.

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