By Brad Ziemer
Jake Knapp has always loved the views at Gallagher’s Canyon Golf & Country Club. They looked even better Thursday when he saw his name atop the leaderboard after the first round of the $200,000 GolfBC Championship.
The 25-year-old from Costa Mesa, Calif., opened the PGA Tour Canada-Mackenzie Tour event with a seven-under 64 that gave him a one-shot lead over Grant Leaver of Murfreesboro, Tenn.
Knapp has played in all four GolfBC Championships. In fact, his first one in 2016 was Knapp’s pro debut. He came to Kelowna and successfully Monday qualified his way into the tournament and went on to finish tied for 45th.
“Absolutely, it holds a little sentimental value to me,” Knapp said of Gallagher’s. “My dad came up and caddied for me that event, too. It’s just a great event and it’s one of my favorite venues to come to. It’s one of the most scenic golf courses we play and the city is great. It’s definitely a special event for me.”
It will be even more special if Knapp can hoist the championship trophy on Sunday. Having already won the season-opening Mackenzie Tour event in Vancouver, Knapp would virtually lock up a top-five finish and Web.com Tour status for next year with a win here.
Knapp started his day on the 10th tee and really wasn’t getting anything going. He was one-over through his first five holes. But he birdied his sixth and ninth holes to make the turn at one-under and then really went to work on his back nine — the front nine at Gallagher’s — which he played in 30 strokes.
The highlight of his day came on the par 4 second hole, where he holed a wedge from 117 yards for an eagle.
“That pin is tucked short left over that hill so I wanted to hit it long right,” Knapp said. “I said let’s hit it past the pin to the right and see what happens. I hit a good shot and knew it was going to be somewhat close. The guy behind the green was pointing that it was in. That’s always a bonus when you can get one of those to fall. That doesn’t happen too often.”
Knapp knows the win in Vancouver has put him in a good position — he is currently second on the Mackenzie Tour money list — and feels like he has momentum on his side.
“The only thing that probably changes in your confidence,” he said of positive start. “Anytime you can win on any tour against any number of players it always feels good and you know you’re doing the right things. I’m just staying consistent with the work that I’ve been doing. Day to day I’m trying to do the same thing to give myself the best chance to win. But mentally I would be stupid to change something now. It seems to be working so I’ve just got to keep plugging away.”
Plugging away is a good way to describe the 33-year-old Leaver’s pro career. It has been a grind, one that has him thinking about how much longer he will keep chasing his pro golf dream. Leaver had Web.com Tour status last year but did not keep his card and was forced to go to the Mackenzie Tour qualifying school this spring.
“It was a little bit (hard), after being full-time Web last year,” Leaver said. “I didn’t want to come up here, but my dad encouraged me to try and take advantage of small opportunities and get back to where you know you can play. Whether that will happen or not, I don’t know. I haven’t felt very confident about that recently, but rounds like this definitely help. It gets you back to feeling like you know you can win, and that’s really all it takes.”
Leaver’s 65 on Thursday was his lowest competitive round since May of last year.
Drew McCullough of Richland, Wash., Patrick Fishburn of Farr West, UT., and David Pastore of Greenwich, Conn., were tied for third after all shooting five-under 66s.
All the low scores were posted by the morning half of the draw. The wind picked up in the afternoon, making scoring much more difficult. Riley Wheeldon of Comox and amateur Chris Crisologo of Richmond were the low Canadians after the first round. Both posted three-under 68s and were tied for 16th place. Kelowna’s John Mlikotic was tied for 27th after opening with a two-under 69. Kimberley’s Jared du Toit, who has finished in the top 10 in two previous starts at the GolfBC Championship, fired a one-under 70 and is tied for 37th.
The 156-man field will be cut to the low 60 and ties following Friday’s second round.