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Two years ago, Jake Knapp was a nightclub bouncer. Now, he’s a $1.4 million PGA Tour champion

By Jack Bantock, CNN

(CNN) — Just two years ago, a cash-strapped Jake Knapp was steering inebriated revelers towards the nightclub exit. On Sunday, the American steered in a putt for almost $1.46 million.

Triumph at the Mexico Open secured Knapp a first PGA Tour victory in just his ninth start on the circuit, as the 29-year-old powered to a two-shot victory ahead of fellow rookie Sami Valimaki in Vidanta Vallarta.

Knapp saw his four-shot final round lead wiped out inside the first seven holes by the 25-year-old Valimaki, who was bidding to become the first Finnish golfer to win on the PGA Tour, but the American held his nerve to card an even-par 71 and win at 19-under par overall.

“I’ll never forget this,” Knapp, who rose 49 places to world No. 52 with the victory, told reporters Sunday.

“For the rest of my life, this will be my first win on the PGA Tour. Whether it’s my first win and only one that I ever have or it’s the first of many, this will always be one that I remember.”

Knapp won despite hitting just two fairways during the final round, the fewest ever made by a PGA Tour event winner since tracking began in 1983. Given his unorthodox route to the top, it was a fitting conclusion.

The University of California – Los Angeles (UCLA) alumni took up work at The Country Club, a restaurant in his home city of Costa Mesa, in 2021 after losing his card on the Korn Ferry Tour, the developmental circuit of the PGA Tour.

Needing money, as well as “responsibility and perspective,” Knapp spent eight months working security at the restaurant which doubles as a nightclub – despite initially applying for a role behind the bar, he recalled to the PGA Tour earlier this month.

“They needed a security guy, and I was like, ‘I don’t know if I’m big enough, but I can stand there and look tough,’” he said.

“I’d work Thursday, Friday, Saturday nights and special events, which allowed me to practice until five or six on Friday, and then go to the gym and eat dinner and go straight there, work until 2 or 3 a.m., come straight home, go to sleep, wake up at 10, course at 11, practice until 5, do it again.

“I was thankful I wasn’t living off that job; it helped fund mini-tour stuff and [PGA Tour] Canada that summer. It made me work a little bit harder and not take golf for granted.”

The evening before the victory that stamped his ticket to his major debut at The Masters in April, Knapp credited his work experience with giving him a renewed vigor for the sport.

“Standing there at 1 in the morning every Friday and Saturday night, you kind of realize how good you have it when you get to travel and play golf for a living,” he told reporters Saturday.

“Then also a bit of grittiness – the fact that I don’t want to, necessarily, have to go back to that … I think it just kind of gave me some thicker skin and allowed me to get to where I am now.”

‘Winner, winner, chicken dinner’

Knapp also paid tribute to his late grandfather, Gordon Bowley, who died in April 2023 at age 85 after a battle with colon cancer.

Bowley, president of youth sports nonprofit Costa Mesa United, was celebrated as a champion of young sports in the area and was idolized by Knapp, who tattooed his initials – G.S.F.B. – on his left arm to honor him last summer.

After an emotional press conference Saturday in which Knapp spoke through tears discussing his relationship with his grandfather, he followed his typical routine Sunday – texting him before and after his round.

“I had a little kind of conversation with him this morning and just talked about the day and wish he could be here to watch it and experience all of it,” Knapp said.

“I know he’s one of those guys that if I ever kind of got down on myself, ever got nervous or started doing something bad, he would just kind of whack me on the back of the head and be like, ‘C’mon, get to work.’”

And what would his response to the victory be?

“‘Winner, winner, chicken dinner,’ that’s his go-to,” Knapp said. “I know he would shoot me a text with that, and he’d probably say, ‘Cigars on me when I get home.’”

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