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Tom McKnight’s Excellent Adventure

June 17, 1999

PINEHURST, N.C. (AP) _ Call this ``Tom McKnight’s Excellent Adventure.″

In April, the 44-year-old father of three took his bag to Augusta National. A couple of weeks ago, he teed it up at Royal County Down in Northern Ireland. Today, he tries to cope with the treacherous greens at Pinehurst No. 2. In August, he’ll feel the Pacific breeze at Pebble Beach.

``I’ve taken a whole list of courses you might want to play in a lifetime,″ said McKnight, taking part in his first U.S. Open, ``and I’ve done them all in one year,″

All of this was made possible by his runner-up finish in the U.S. Amateur championship last year. Taking on a bevy of big, young hitters, McKnight defeated Spanish phenom Sergio Garcia in the semifinals before losing to Hank Kuehne in the finals.

McKnight earned an automatic bid to the Masters, where he surprisingly made the cut. He took his first trip to the British Amateur, held at Royal County Down. He qualified for a spot in this week’s U.S. Open at Pinehurst. He’ll make a return trip to the U.S. Amateur at Pebble Beach.

``Obviously, it’s been a dream of mine to play here,″ said McKnight, who joined a practice round foursome that also included Ben Crenshaw, Curtis Strange and Mark Calcavecchia. ``The man upstairs has smiled on me a lot this year.″

A one-time professional hopeful, McKnight’s career on the links seemed doomed when he fell on his left arm during a pickup basketball game in 1980. He was carried off the court on a stretcher and spent a couple of days in the hospital. A bone was shattered, his elbow dislocated.

To this day, the results of the injury are still clearly evident.

``See how crooked it is,″ he said Wednesday, holding out his disparate arms to reveal a limb that looks like a twisting road on a map. ``I still can’t turn it all the way.″

Doctors told McKnight that he would never have the flexibility to compete at an elite level. So, he reclaimed his amateur status in 1984 and took over his father’s business, running a petroleum distributorship and a string of convenience stores in his native Virginia and North Carolina.

McKnight continued to play a lot of golf, competing in 14 U.S. Amateurs _ he defeated both David Duval and Stewart Cink in 1988 before losing in the third round _ and nine Mid-Amateur championships.

``I’ve been playing the last 10 to 15 years against all these young kids who were coming through on their way to the pros,″ McKnight said. ``It’s nice to be able to compete at that level.″

He finally broke through last year, beating Sergio Garcia 3 and 1 after the Spanish teen-ager knocked off defending U.S. Amateur champion Matt Kuchar in the quarterfinals. McKnight lost to Kuehne 2 and 1 in the finals at Oak Hill, but the second-place showing was still good enough for a Masters invitation.

For two nights at Augusta, he bunked in the famed Crow’s Nest like a college freshman, joined by Kuehne and Garcia.

``I just looked at it as three golfers up there,″ said McKnight, whose senior child, 20-year-old Tee, is a year older than Garcia. ``I don’t think they looked at me like their dad or something.″

After finishing up his practice round, Kuehne said he looks at McKnight like any other promising amateur.

``Tom is a great friend of mine,″ said Kuehne, who plans to turn pro on Monday. ``He is a great player, that’s all there is to it. He hits it down the middle and makes a lot of putts. He’s had a lot of success lately because he’s been playing courses that fit his game.″

Tee McKnight was planning to handle the bag for his dad during today’s opening round, then he’ll pass off the duty to his 17-year-old brother, Jay, on Friday. If dad makes the cut, they’ll split up the duties on the weekend, just like they did at the Masters.

``This is awesome,″ said Tee McKnight, a senior at the University of Virginia, borrowing a line from Bill and Ted. ``People are realizing now how good he is. The Amateur did wonders for his confidence. That’s why he’s playing so well.″

McKnight has thought about resuming his professional career on the Senior Tour when he turns 50, but he hasn’t made that decision yet. While his children _ he also has a 14-year-old daughter, Tara _ all will be grown, he’s got to consider the demands on his business.

``Only time will tell,″ McKnight said. ``Just because I’ve had a few good tournaments at the right time is not going to change the way I look at things.″

No need to ruin an Excellent Adventure.

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