Colt Knost and Kelly Kraft won U.S. Amateur championships while playing at SMU. Both earned exemptions to the Masters, U.S. Open and British Open.
But to accept invitations to those professional majors required maintaining amateur status. That decision can be trickier than a downhill putt on Augusta National’s slick greens.
Knost forfeited the exemptions to turn pro. Five years later, he is at home in Dallas, still waiting for his shot at the Masters.
Kraft delayed his pro career to live the dream. He has a tee time at 10:24 a.m. on Thursday with defending champion Charl Schwartzel and PGA Championship winner Keegan Bradley. They will be in front of four-time defending champion Tiger Woods’ group.
``It’s hard when this week rolls around,’’ Knost said. ``It is the event everyone wants to play so it’s tough to skip. But I have no regrets. I did what was right for me. I made a decision based on my career, not on one event. I certainly don’t fault Kelly for making the decision he did.’’
In the spirit of co-founder Bobby Jones, the most decorated amateur in golf history, the Masters traditionally invites amateur champions.
Kraft is joined by U.S. Amateur runner-up Patrick Cantlay, Randal Lewis, U.S. Mid Amateur winner, U.S. Amateur Public Links champion Corbin Mills, British Amateur champ Bryden Macpherson and Asian Amateur winner Hideki Matsuyama.
Earning the invitation was just the first step; most have issues to resolve.
Macpherson chose to withdraw from the University of Georgia to prepare for the year Masters, an indication that he will turn pro. Cantley, a sophomore at UCLA, has not announced his pro intentions. He finished as low amateur at last year’s U.S. Open and then shot 60 to take the lead at the PGA Tour’s Travelers Championship.
Kraft announced early on that he would retain his amateur standing through the Masters and then turn pro. He reasoned that he can still qualify for the U.S. Open and British Open.
"This is the main prize, right here," Kraft told reporters at Augusta. "This is what I stayed amateur for, to play in this thing. It's been great so far."
Knost is the last amateur to turn pro and forgo the Masters. He has played on the PGA and Nationwide Tours, but has not earned another Masters invitation.
A highly decorated college player, Knost won three U.S. Golf Association events in 2007. After claiming the U.S. Amateur Public Links and the U.S. Amateur, Knost helped the United States win the Walker Cup with his 2-0-2 record. He was the top-ranked amateur in the world.
Although tempted by the Masters, Knost wanted to begin his professional career. He also had endorsement offers which could provide financial stability as he earned his stripes.
Kraft was not highly recruited out of Denton Ryan. He won the Trans-Mississippi Championship and the Texas State Amateur last year but was still relatively under the radar.
He was considering entering PGA Tour Qualifying School before he plowed through the U.S. Amateur field, finishing with a 2-up victory over No. 1 Cantlay. He decided to turn pro after the Masters for the chance to play in PGA Tour events.
``I had accomplished everything in amateur golf,’’ Knost said. ``I was going out as the No. 1 player and had some deals offered that helped my family financially. You never know what’s going to happen. As it turned out, the economy went bad and I was glad I made that choice.’’
Kraft played a couple practice rounds at Augusta in January. He played 18 holes on Sunday and Monday, and then played nine holes and had a practice session with Lakewood Country Club instructor Pat O’Brien on Tuesday. On Wednesday he played in the Par-3 contest with his fiancé, Tia Gannon. He has a DFW gallery of about 20.
``It’s fun to watch somebody go through this for the first time,’’ said O’Brien, who coaches 2007 Masters champ Zach Johnson. ``He looks really comfortable out there. He’s hitting it well but I like his demeanor most of all. He’s having a blast.’’
Kraft may make pro debut in San Antonio
Kraft will probably make his pro debut on a sponsor’s exemption at the Valero Texas Open.
He has spots in the May 17-20 HP Byron Nelson Championship and the May 24-27 Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial, and exemptions to the Memorial (May 32-June 3) and the AT&T National (June 28-July 1).
The Memorial and the AT&T will not count against the seven sponsor’s exemptions for which he’s eligible.
Jordan Spieth could be headed to Valero Texas Open
Texas freshman Jordan Spieth of Dallas won’t be able to make his third straight appearance at the HP Byron Nelson Championship, but he has been offered a sponsor's exemption to the April 19-22 Valero Texas Open.
Spieth is No. 1in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings and No. 3 in the R&A’s World Amateur Ranking. He can’t play the Nelson because it conflicts with NCAA regionals.
Spieth tied for 16th at the 2010 Nelson and tied for 32nd last year. He missed the cut at the 2010 St. Jude’s Classic and the Northern Trust Open in February.