Amateur Jake Kneen Leads Heading to Michigan Open’s Final Round

ACME – White Lake amateur Jake Kneen had just one bad swing.

  The rest were very good in his 5-under 67 that powered him into the lead through three rounds of the 101st Michigan Open Championship being played on the Bear course at Grand Traverse Resort and Spa.

  “A lot of things were going well for me,” said the 22-year-old recent graduate of Oakland University where he was named the Horizon League Golfer of the Year this spring.

  His 11-under 205 total gave him a three-shot lead on third-round leader and mini-tour professional Eric Lilleboe of Okemos, who shot 72 for 208. James Holley of Howell, another mini-tour professional, shot 70 for 210 to set up the final threesome pairing for Thursday’s final round in the $55,500 state championship.

  Former PGA Tour player and two-time Michigan Open champion Tom Gillis of Lake Orion shot 74 for 213, eight off the lead in fourth place alone, and Kyle Wittenbach, the head men’s and women’s golf coach at Ferris State University, shot a 69 for 215 to round out the top five.  

  Kneen had seven birdies on his card when he made a double-bogey on the par 4 No. 16 hole with a drive that drifted into the long grass, and he came up short of the green on the par 3 17th and made bogey.

   “I was hitting it really well and making a lot of putts,” he said. “I had one bad swing at 16 and had to chip sideways out of the heather and made a double (bogey). A four isn’t all that bad at 17. As a whole though, I will very much accept the score and look forward to tomorrow.”

  Kneen, a former Michigan Junior Amateur champion, can become just the sixth amateur to win the state Open championship, and just the second in the last 43 years. Tom Werkmeister of Grandville, who became a professional this year at age 50, broke a streak of 38 wins by professionals in 2013.

  Lilleboe, who was second in 2016 to Jeff Bronkema in the Open, said he was impressed by Kneen’s play Wednesday.

  “The kid can play,” he said. “I’ve played with him before. He plans to turn pro and I think he will be successful. He’s a very good player and has a good head on his shoulders. He didn’t make a mistake until 16. He will be tough to chase down if he plays like that tomorrow.”

  Kneen almost didn’t make it to the Michigan Open despite being exempt from qualifying as the low amateur in last year’s Tournament of Champions. He didn’t enter, however, and didn’t notice until the entry deadline passed. That forced him into the second-chance three-spot qualifier the Michigan PGA presented on Saturday at nearby Traverse City Golf & Country Club. He bested the field with a 65.

  “My mom is blaming herself, but it was on me, I’m the player and ultimately responsible,” he said. “I definitely didn’t want to miss this. I’ve been looking forward to playing it.”

   He has slept on leads before, but admitted not in a tournament that involved professional golfers.

  “This is what I’ve worked for and what I’ve practiced for,” he said. “I’ve won a couple of tournaments as an amateur and in college, and those experiences will help me tomorrow. I’m more than excited to go out there and have a chance to win.”

   Wind kicked up after an hour rain delay Wednesday morning and the 30-year-old Lilleboe said the Bear was a test of patience.

  “I made a bogey (on No. 2) with a three-putt and missed a lot of birdie opportunities,” he said. “But I stayed tough, battled it and birdied the last hole for a respectable round. I still have a chance.”

  Holley, 29 and a Michigan resident for just four months after moving here from his native California, shot 31 on the front nine, but 39 on the back for his 70.

  “I hit it pretty good all day, but on the front nine I got good breaks with the ball kicking toward the hole, and on the back nine, the ball kicked off some,” he said.

  He is hoping the wind howls tomorrow. He grew up in Chatsworth north of Los Angeles in the San Fernando Valley where the Santa Anna winds are known to wreak havoc on golf.

  “I hope it blows 50,” he said.  “The windier it is, the better it is for me. I think in the wind you have to think more, and it makes a tough course even tougher.”

 

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