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Golf| Naperville North grad lives dream of playing in PGA event

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Raymond Knoll is having a great month.

The 18-year-old Naperville North graduate, who is about to start his sophomore year at the University of Iowa, qualified for his first PGA tour event and played in the John Deere Classic in Silva, Ill., on July 10 and 11. The following week, he returned home to play in the Illinois State Amateur Championship at Cantigny Golf in Wheaton — and won the overall title with a dramatic playoff victory.

"It's always been my dream to play on the PGA Tour, and to actually be able to do it was something else," Knoll said. "Those five days (at the John Deere Classic) were some of the best of my life. It's something I'll never forget."

Knoll scored his spot for the PGA event at the John Deere Classic Qualifier at the Pinnacle Country Club in Milan, Ill., by sinking a 45-foot putt on the last hole for an eagle that tied him for first place.

"I had a good drive on the fairway, and normally I would have laid up (on the second shot)," he said. "But I thought I'd better go for it — and the ball ended up on the green."

He struck gold a second time with the long putt.

"It just looked good all the way," he said. "As it got closer to the hole, I just knew it was going in."

And it did. Knoll gave a fist-pump and then took a knee on the green, overwhelmed by what he had just accomplished.

"It's one of those things that you think about all the time growing up," he said. "I kind of broke down afterward. I just couldn't believe it had actually come true."

At the John Deere Classic, Knoll shot a 74 and 71 on the first two days of the tournament. His three-over-par failed to make the cut for the weekend, but he was very satisfied with his performance.

"I think I played really well," Knoll said. "I had one bad hole, the 12th, which was a 200-yard par 3. On the first day, I hit a terrible shot and wound up with a triple bogey. On the second day, I had a bogey. But apart from that, I was under par."

"I'm not surprised at all that he played so well," said Ryan Hantak, his golf coach at Naperville North. "He's an incredible golfer, and an even better kid … His goal is to make it on the PGA tour, and we all think he can do it."

There wasn't much rest after the thrill of playing for a national audience. Knoll came home to Naperville and took on the best golfers in the state at the Illinois Amateur Championship.

He started the three-day, 72-hole tournament slowly by shooting a 75. But he put together five straight birdies on day two en route to a 67. On the final day, he shot a 71 to tie with University of Illinois freshman Nick Hardy at 8 under par and force a playoff.

Both golfers remained even after three additional holes. On the fourth — the first of sudden death — Hardy hit his drive into a hazard and had to take a drop.

"I hit what looked like the exact same shot (as Hardy), but I ended up about 10 feet short (of the hazard), and I was safe," Knoll said. He was able to par the hole and win.

"It was a great tournament and great to win on this course (Cantigny) that I played on growing up," he said.

The win wrapped up a memorable stretch of golf.

"I think we figured it out that I played 257 holes in 12 days," said Knoll. "And I don't think there was one hole where I didn't fell some kind of pressure. But I loved it. I love being on a golf course and competing."

Knoll isn't slowing down just yet. He's playing in the Illinois Open Championship in Glenview this week, then he will start to focus on the college season.

"I'm very excited about what we can do this year," said Knoll, who tied for 12th at the Big Ten Championship as a freshman. "I'd like to see us compete for a national championship this year."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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