SAN FRANCISCO – Colt Knost has a secret weapon at the Olympic Club.
His name is Steve Molinelli. He’s a four-time club champion here, twice at match play and twice at stroke play. He’s been on the bag for Knost all week at the 107th U.S. Amateur, one of several reasons Knost is the man to beat as the championship moves into Saturday’s semifinals.
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“He plays this golf course far better than I ever have, even on my best day,” said Molinelli, 41, who was on the University of the Pacific golf team and is a frequent competitor in regional amateur events. “It is awe-inspiring to see the command he has of this course. It really fits his eye.”
Knost, the chunky SMU grad who won the U.S. Amateur Public Links in June, will face an imposing Jhonattan (pronounced Jonathan) Vegas, who just wrapped up his career at the University of Texas. University of Alabama senior Michael Thompson will square off against Casey Clendenon, a senior at Lamar, in the other.
Vegas has his younger brother, Julio, on the bag. Thompson and Clendenon have local caddies, but neither is a club champ.
Molinelli is close friends with Knost’s Dallas-based putting coach, Pat O’Brien, a former Olympic Club assistant pro with whom Molinelli played high school golf. It was on O’Brien’s recommendation that Knost called Molinelli and proposed the partnership.
“He’s been great,” said Knost, who qualified as the 35th seed after rounds of 69-75 and has yet to trail in match play. “We get along out there. He knows the course very well and he’s a great player, from what I hear.”
In 1981, Molinelli caddied for Nathaniel Crosby at nearby Burlingame Country Club in the U.S. Amateur qualifier that set the stage for Crosby’s victory at Olympic.
“My Coke bottle glasses at 15 weren’t enough to get me here (to work the championship),” Molinelli said, adding that he did shag balls for Crosby when he practiced at Burlingame in the evenings that week.
“I basically lived ‘Caddyshack’ as a child,” said Molinelli, who makes his living selling dental practices. “I was D'Annunzio growing up down at Burlingame.”
Knost said it’s unusual at big amateur tournaments to hook up with a caddie who’s always out front, ready with yardages and reliable club suggestions.
“He works so hard out there for me,” Knost said. “I think he wants to win this thing as much as I do. I feel bad sometimes, because if he misreads a putt he feels so bad about it.”
Molinelli said his role is nothing more than to confirm what Knost already has deduced.
“I’m just trying to acknowledge what he sees and have him trust his instincts,” he said. “Colt has had great instincts since the first day he played this course on Saturday.”
The importance of which can’t be understated. Both the Ocean Course and the championship Lakeside Course at Olympic Club are shotmakers’ layouts, designed in 1924 by Willie Watson and tweaked by Robert Trent Jones before the 1955 U.S. Open. The rough this week is thick and gnarly; the targets have always been small.
The average green at Olympic, which is slated to host the 2012 U.S. Open, is 4,700 square feet, 1,300 fewer than the PGA Tour average. The only major championship venue in the United States that features smaller greens is Pebble Beach, whose postage stamps average 3,500 square feet.
Since it opened, Olympic has had the reputation as the longest short course in the world. Don’t be fooled by the listed yardage of 6,929 for the Amateur. Bomb and gougers don’t prosper here, because the routes to those minuscule greens are made treacherous by eucalyptus, Monterey pine and cypress trees that line the fairways, most of which are doglegs with canted landing areas.
Which explains why the eight players in the quarterfinals combined for a mere 13 birdies and two eagles over 60 holes. One eagle was conceded after Thompson hit his drive at the 286-yard par-4 seventh hole to within 14 inches of the cup. Five others belonged to Knost.
“If you don’t hit it in the fairway, you’re done,” said Knost.
He ought to know, having missed so few. Thanks, in part, to his caddie’s local knowledge.