It’s no secret 2020 has been a dumpster fire of a year, but Alex Knoll found a glimmer of hope amid the flames.
After years of working to qualify for the PGA Championship, the Palmerton High School golf coach and math teacher from Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, finally did it.
Largely thanks to the coronavirus, that is.
“That’s the only silver lining for COVID in this entire world is I got into this tournament,” Knoll joked.
Knoll, an assistant teaching pro at Glenbrook Golf Club in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, attempted to qualify for the PGA Championship three times prior to this year. The 35-year-old planned to make his play for a spot in the major tournament during the 2020 PGA Professional Championship at Omni Barton Creek Resort and Spa in Austin, Texas.
Knoll qualified for the PGA Professional Championship by winning the 2019 Philadelphia PGA Professional Championship in September. During his win, in which he shot 2-under 209 at Union League Golf Club in Torresdale, Philadelphia, Knoll carded an opening-round 62, breaking Sam Snead’s competitive course record. Snead held the record for 78 years after posting a 64 during the 1941 Henry Hearst Invitational.
Like so many other events this year, the PGA Professional Championship in Austin, originally scheduled for April 26-29, was postponed in March and cancelled in late June due to the coronavirus pandemic. The PGA of America alerted club pros by email that the top 20 pros on a points list would qualify for the major. Knoll said he was sure he wasn’t on the list and almost didn’t open the file attached to the email, but he was glad he did.
“When I clicked it, I found my name on the list at No. 11 and I was like, ‘Holy crap,’” Knoll said.
High school math teacher Alex Knoll after winning the 2019 Philadelphia PGA Professional Championship. (Philadelphia PGA Section)
Several factors went into Knoll’s high ranking on the top 20 list: His finish at the 2019 PGA Professional National Championship in which he finished T-33, his win at the 2019 Philadelphia PGA Professional Championship and his resulting 2019 PAO Player of the Year honor from the Philadelphia PGA.
Knoll, who arrived in San Francisco Sunday, has never played at TPC Harding Park. In fact, the Pennsylvania native has only been to California twice: once to play Pebble Beach with his father and most recently, to play Bayonet & Black Horse in Seaside during the 2018 PGA Professional National Championship.
Knoll, whose only professional start was on the Nationwide Tour in 2007, said surveying TPC Harding Park during his practice rounds early in the week with caddie and friend, Mike Guro, by his side will be instrumental to his performance.
“It’s going to be overly crucial for the practice rounds for me just to feel out the golf course,” Knoll said. “I’m terrified going into the distances I’m going to have to be hitting the golf ball so it will be nice to know what I kind of have to do in order to maybe compete or at least not embarrass myself.
“I’m really looking forward to spending time with the Callaway tour van staff trying to make sure everything’s kind of optimized for me to give myself the best chance out there to showcase that club pros can play a little. We’re not (at) that level, but we can maybe throw a couple good rounds together.”
While golfers in Pennsylvania may know about Knoll and his skillset on the course, the former Davidson golfer provided a glimpse of what helped him have such a successful 2019 to those who don’t.
Knoll said he’s improving in putting, once a strength during his junior year at Davidson in 2006 when he planned to pursue a professional career, but his most notable strengths are the accuracy of his drives, his iron play and his mental approach.
High school math teacher Alex Knoll will compete in the 2020 PGA Championship at TPC Harding Park in San Francisco after qualifying with the nation’s top 20 teaching pros. (Alex Knoll)
“Perseverance, I think, shows in my game,” Knoll said. “I try not to get down on myself. I’ve learned playing now for 25 years the game is too tough if you’re negative so I really try to stay positive out there and enjoy it because there’s not many people that have a chance to do what I get to do and I think that shows in my game that I can play confidently even in a stressful environment.”
Excited to be playing in a major, Knoll admitted before he arrived in California he was not mentally ready to play golf yet. With the global pandemic still raging across the United States, Knoll said he has a few more steps to take before he can think about his game and playing with the pros.
“It’s nerve-racking for everyone, (the COVID element) is just something extra you have to worry about,” Knoll said ahead of his flight to San Francisco. “I can’t just focus on the tournament yet because the far more important thing is the COVID test on Sunday when I land. That’s probably more important than actually how I play. If I play.”
While there are risks involved with traveling and playing in the event, especially in California which surpassed half a million confirmed cases, Knoll said he feels comfortable playing on Tour because of how they’ve handled the season restart.
The Tour season restarted in June after a 13-week hiatus. So far, eight players and two caddies have tested positive for the virus on Tour.
“If you look at obviously just what happened with the Miami Marlins that hasn’t happened on the PGA Tour and the PGA Tour has had to travel throughout the country and they’ve played in the states where they’ve had the highest numbers,” Knoll said. “And the Tour, I commend the Tour, I commend the guys out there because they know how important it is to stay safe and they’ve been doing that.”