Jake Knapp meets Rory McIlroy, calm conditions make for record-low first-round scoring at Cognizant Classic

One of the perks of winning on the PGA Tour is better tee times. Just ask Jake Knapp, who went from the outhouse to the penthouse in one week.

Knapp, a 29-year-old rookie who was working as a bouncer at a bar-restaurant in Southern California just two years ago to make ends meet, teed off in the third-to-last group of his wave last week in the opening rounds at the Mexico Open at Vidanta. That’s when the greens are bumpier and riddled with spike marks and the wind blows its hardest. None of that bothered Knapp, who won the tournament.

Along with the seven-figure check and a berth in the Masters, Knapp received primo tee times for the first two rounds of the Cognizant Classic in the Palm Beaches alongside former world No. 1 and 2012 Cognizant Classic winner Rory McIlroy and defending Cognizant Classic champion Chris Kirk.

How did Knapp feel playing in one of the featured groups in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, alongside McIlroy, one of the game’s biggest stars?

2024 Cognizant Classic in The Palm Beaches
2024 Cognizant Classic in The Palm Beaches

Jake Knapp prepares to hit his approach shot on the ninth hole during the first round of the 2024 Cognizant Classic in The Palm Beaches at PGA National. (Photo: Jeff Romance/Palm Beach Post)

“Not nearly as nerve-racking as I thought it was going to be, to be honest,” Knapp said. “I met him this morning in dining and had some casual conversation, and he’s a super, super nice guy. So is Chris. It was just a good easy morning.”

Indeed, it was for Knapp, a UCLA product, who opened with a solid 3-under 68 at PGA National Resort’s Champion Course on Thursday, one stroke more than Kirk and McIlroy, who said of playing with Knapp that he “likes to put people at ease,” and four back of the co-leaders Chad Ramey and S.H. Kim.

Like many of today’s current crop of players, Knapp grew up idolizing Tiger Woods. He also admired the game of former world No. 1’s Luke Donald and Dustin Johnson. Knapp, who grew to become one of the longer hitters in the game, was short in stature as a kid and tried to emulate Donald’s wizardry with a wedge and putter until hitting his growth spurt as a junior in high school.

“Then as I started to hit it farther, started to transition more into the DJ category,” Knapp said. “Obviously over the last few years, a lot of people have tried to emulate Rory and just all the things he does on and off the course.”

McIlroy and Knapp shared a mutual admiration. While the Northern Irishman outdrove him on this day – an average of 327 yards for McIlroy to 319 yards for Knapp on the two measured driving holes – he couldn’t say enough good things about Knapp – an example of game recognizing game.

“He could definitely be a star. It looks like he’s got the full package. He’s obviously got the speed. He can control that speed pretty well. He hit some beautiful shots out there today,” McIlroy said. “He could be a superstar out here, for sure.”

COGNIZANT CLASSIC: Friday tee times, TV info | Photos

Here are four more things to know about the first round of the Cognizant Classic.

No wind equals no problem going low

2024 Cognizant Classic
The 17th hole prior to the Cognizant Classic in The Palm Beaches at PGA National Resort And Spa in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. (Photo: Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images)

The Knapp, McIlroy, Kirk grouping weren’t the only scores in red figures from the morning wave at a typically stingy course, where single digits under par often is enough to hoist the trophy on Sunday. In fact, the field set a new record for the lowest opening round scoring average at PGA National with a mark of 69.50, more than half a stroke lower than the previous low of 70.15 in 2013.

McIlroy was pleased with his 67 but still trailed by three strokes on a day where the Jack Nicklaus design and the infamous three-hole stretch known as the Bear Trap, starting at the water-laden par-3 15th, was vulnerable to low scoring.

“It was so benign today. You’re not going to get this course much easier,” McIlroy said.

“It’s like, wait, I can actually fire at that pin,” said Andrew Novak, who posted 65. “I thought today was kind of take it for what it is.”

So did Cameron Young, who was among a six pack of pros a stroke off the lead after shooting 65.

“When the wind is down like this morning and the greens aren’t that firm yet, I feel like it was kind of your day to be a little bit more aggressive,” Young said.  “Just so happened I made some putts and shot a good score.”

PGA National was left defenseless on Thursday without any wind but players know that Thursday’s conditions were the outlier not the norm and are bracing for the course to play more difficult over the next three rounds.

“Fully expect the rest of the week the wind to blow,” Ramey said. I’ve never been here and it not blow.”

Ramey, Kim share the lead

2024 Cognizant Classic in The Palm Beaches
Chad Ramey watches his tee shot on the 17th hole during the first round of the 2024 Cognizant Classic in The Palm Beaches at PGA National. (Photo: Jeff Romance/Palm Beach Post)

Chad Ramey had never shot in the 60s at PGA National’s Champion Course in four previous rounds and missed the cut twice. S.H. Kim broke 70 once last year in four rounds and finished T-63 in his tournament debut. Of course, they share the lead after the opening round of the Cognizant Classic.

Ramey, 31, rolled in a 27-foot birdie putt at the first and chipped in for birdie at the sixth en route to five birdies in his first seven holes.

“Hit it well, putted well, chipped in once. Very solid through the whole bag,” said Ramey, who has one Tour title to his credit and last shot 64 in the opening round of the Players Championship last March.

Kim, a 25-year-old South Korean, made an eagle and five birdies in posting his bogey-free 64. He stiffed his approach to 13 and snuck in his birdie putt at 18 to tie for the lead.

Kim is seeking his first victory in his second year on Tour.

Fowler gets wet, Rose's ridiculous par save

2024 Cognizant Classic in The Palm Beaches
Rickie Fowler assesses his deep bunker shot on the ninth green during the first round of the 2024 Cognizant Classic in The Palm Beaches at PGA National. (Photo: Jeff Romance/Palm Beach Post)

Rickie Fowler got his foot wet at the final hole of the Bear Trap.

Fowler’s tee shot at the 179-yard par-3 17th came up short and landed on the edge of the penalty area. But it didn’t submerge. Asked to describe the lie, Golf Channel’s Smylie Kaufmann said, “Someone’s going to get wet.”

Fowler took off his right shoe and sock and rolled up his pant leg and dipped one foot in the water fronting the green. Fowler played it like a plugged bunker shot and took a big whack, sending a splash nearly as high as the ball, which floated on to the green, 24 feet past the hole.

“He made that look easier than it was,” Golf Channel’s Brad Faxon said.

“There’s nothing in the world that says professional golf like a monster tan line Rickie has around his ankle,” Golf Channel’s Steve Sands said as Fowler dried off and replaced his sock and shoes.

Fowler failed to make the par putt, dropping back to even par for the day but we applaud the effort.

Even more impressive? How about this all-world par by Justin Rose (2 under), who didn’t let some fencing get in his way of keeping a square off his card after an errant shot.

Other notables

2024 Cognizant Classic in The Palm Beaches
Daniel Berger tees off on the 10th hole during the first round of the 2024 Cognizant Classic in The Palm Beaches at PGA National. (Photo: Jeff Romance/Palm Beach Post)

Bud Cauley, who is making just his second start since 2020 due to injury, made five birdies in a six-hole stretch on the front nine to shoot 66. That was two strokes better than Daniel Berger, who is making his fourth start since being sidelined for 19 months.

Matthieu Pavon, the leader of the FedEx Cup point standings this season, fired 67.

So, too, did Shane Lowry, who has finished in the top five at the Cognizant Classic in each of the last two years, representing half of his top-five finishes on Tour since the start of the 2021-22 season.

Ryan Palmer, who is making his 500th career Tour start this week, has his work cut out for him if he’s going to make the weekend after shooting 2-over 73.

Eric Cole, who lost in a playoff last year at this event and went on to be named Tour Rookie of the Year, limped home in 7-over 78, dead last in the 144-man field.

Worth noting that the 10th hole at PGA National (Champion) has been converted from a 508-yard par 4 to a 530-yard par 5 this week. Last season, the 14-hole stretch from No. 4 through No. 17 at PGA National was the longest on Tour without a par 5.

Story originally appeared on GolfWeek