EUGENE, OREGON | On the opening par-4 hole of the 2018 U.S. Senior Amateur final at Eugene Country Club, Jeff Wilson of Fairfield, Calif., hit a full sand wedge for his second shot. The ball stopped 10 inches from the hole, and Wilson’s opponent, Sean Knapp of Oakmont, Pa., quickly was 1 down.
If that wasn’t an omen for Knapp, another incident occurred on the 220-yard second hole. With a hybrid in hand, Knapp started his swing. Immediately his clubhead brushed the grass and sent a small leaf flying into the air. It landed directly on top of Knapp’s ball.
Knapp tried but failed to stop his swing. “Are we ever going to stop?” he said out loud. Knapp, the 2017 U.S. Senior Amateur champion, is a gifted player, and he managed to halve that second hole from heavy grass.
But it would be a frustrating day for Knapp. For a stretch, he played brilliantly, although Wilson was more brilliant. After Wilson birdied Nos. 13, 15 and 16, he was on his way to a 2-and-1 triumph.
It was the first United States Golf Association title for Wilson, who owns an impressive pedigree in competitive golf. He has captured low amateur honors in both the U.S. Open and U.S. Senior Open, and he has earned medalist honors in six USGA championships.
On the way to the final match, both Wilson and Knapp won five matches. Including 36 holes of qualifying, they played eight rounds in six days. On the eve of the final, Knapp received a stream of phone calls and text messages. From whom, exactly?
“Not enough people,” he joked. “I needed to hear from higher powers to win this match.”
Knapp was extremely gracious in defeat.
“Anybody who has played amateur golf at a high level has known Jeff Wilson,” he said. “He is a superstar. You did not see a senior amateur golfer out there. You saw one of the best amateur golfers in the entire country. I knew it was going to be an uphill battle, and it was.”
If it was indeed uphill, credit Wilson’s driver with making the difference. Wilson, who is general manager of a Toyota dealership, called the driver a “secret weapon.”
Knapp probably had a few derogatory names for the driver. Wilson outdrove Knapp by 50 yards on two occasions, and was in front of his opponent all day by 25 to 35 yards. There was no measuring device on hand, but Wilson appeared to be obliterating the 300-yard barrier on every drive.
And what was this nuclear driver? It was a new club for Wilson – a 9-degree Ping G400 with a Project X Hzrdus graphite shaft. The driver came from Kepler’s, a large southern California retail golf store where Wilson spent valuable time with a professional clubfitter.
“I swear, he hits it 20 to 25 yards longer (than any of his previous drivers),” said his former schoolmate and longtime caddie, Bobby Pereira.
Wilson’s driver exploits attracted Christopher Smith, head teaching professional at Eugene Country Club.
“How does he hit it so far?” Smith was asked.
“He has a skinny butt,” Smith replied very seriously. “I know from experience that golfers with skinny butts can often generate more speed in their swings. He also moves very freely. You can see it when he walks. He’s loose and flexible. It all helps. He hits it a very long way.”
Wilson and Knapp surely were among the most accommodating golfers ever to win USGA championships. They talked, they reflected, they thanked, they did everything but announce they were moving to Eugene.
The U.S. Senior Amateur, with a medal/match format, is designed for golfers 55 and older. Wilson, 55, was eligible for the first time. Knapp, 56, played in his second Senior Amateur. The field included 156 golfers who competed for 36 holes, battling for one of 64 spots in match play.
Wilson, who hits practice balls every morning for an hour, works on his swing with touring pro Jeff Brehaut.
Pereira, the victorious caddie, proudly showed off the clubs in Wilson’s bag. His equipment lineup: Ping G400 driver, 9.0 degrees; Ping G400 3-wood, 15 degrees; Titleist 913 hybrid, 24 degrees; Titleist 716 T-MB 4-iron through pitching wedge; Titleist Vokey SM7 wedges, 50, 56 and 60 degrees, Tank putter, Titleist Pro V1x golf ball.