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Kansas Golf Associaition

K-State Duo Takes Title of the “New” Heart of America Four-Ball

Connor Knabe
and Ben Fernandez are collegiate golf teammates at Kansas State.  After a year of getting to know each other at school, the two saw a perfect opportunity during the summer off-season – the Heart of America Four-Ball to be played in August at the historic Milburn Country Club in Overland Park.

The Heart as it is most commonly known is a decades old regional four-ball competition conducted by the Kansas City Golf Association that has some famous names on its traveling trophy like Payne Stewart, Jim Colbert and Matt Gogel.   After a brief one year hiatus, The Heart returned this year with a slightly different twist.    In a new partnership the KCGA and the Kansas Golf Association agreed to jointly present The Heart as an early August match play only event featuring 32 four-ball teams.   Each association would qualify 16 teams from their own four-ball championship.  Seeds were assigned based on the order of finish in those early June events.   Working through four single-elimination match play rounds over two days resulted in the KGA finalist facing the KCGA finalist for a 36 hole match on day three.

The first order of business for Knabe and Fernandez was to qualify for The Heart.  They easily did that by winning the Kansas Four-Ball in early June at Eagle Bend Golf Course in Lawrence, KS.   With the top seed on the KGA side of The Heart bracket, they were the clear favorites to advance to the finals.

Their approach was obvious – Knabe would go first and hit his tee shot as far down the hole as he could with his 300 yard plus driving ability.  Fernandez would follow with precise play from the tee, usually keeping the team in play.  Both are above average putters, so birdies were usually easy to find for the Wildcat pair.  That strategy worked well through the first two rounds on day one.  They posted two wins with 6&4 and 5&3 results.

The most difficult match in the event for Knabe/Fernandez came in the third round when they faced Justice Valdivia and Tavin Dugan, former college teammates on the Washburn University golf team where Dugan still plays as a senior.   The way the match begin appeared to be just like the first two rounds – build an early lead and close them out early.   Knabe/Fernandez shot 4-under par on the front nine to take a commanding 4 up lead at the turn.    But then Valdivia/Dugan found their pride and their A game and ran off five consecutive birdies on the hardest stretch of the Milburn layout.   After the first four of those birdies the match was back to all square and the fifth birdie was to halve the 14th hole.   The key hole for this match was the par three 15th hole.  Set up for wedge shots from the tee, Knabe/Fernandez got back on top with a birdie, then held on to play out the match punctuated with another winning birdie on the 18th hole for a 2 up win.

The semifinals put the K-Staters against the pairing of Chase Hanna, a KU junior, playing with another KC area local Preston Fleenor, a member of the Mizzou golf team.   In a close match that had Hanna/Fleenor 1 up through most of the middle holes, the win went to Knabe/Fernandez when they ran off four birdies over a five hole stretch from #12 to #16 giving them a 3&2 victory and a trip to the 36-hole finals.

Park Ulrich, a UMKC golfer alumni, and Alex Higgs, a current member of the SMU golf team, qualified for The Heart in both the KCGA and KGA four-ball championships.  When they saw the strength of the respective brackets, they picked the KCGA side thinking that reaching the finals might be an easier path.  They might have been right as they reach their goal of playing in the finals of The Heart of America Four-Ball.

Knabe/Fernandez stuck to their strategy of long off the tee and making birdies.  After the opening 18 holes, they were 9-under par including a tap in eagle at the par five 8th hole by Knabe.  That was good enough for a 4 up advantage at the lunch break.

Despite a lull by Knabe/Fernandez through the third nine, Ulrich/Park could not make up much ground.  Every time they made a birdie, Knabe/Fernandez answered for a halve except once.  So, with nine holes to play, Knabe/Fernandez held a 3 up lead.

With the memory of what Valdivia/Dugan did to them in the third round, Knabe/Fernandez ran off two quick birdies at #10 and #11 to get their advantage to 5 up with only 7 holes remaining.   Halving pars at #12 and a Ulrich/Higgs bogey at #13 (the 31st hole of the match) ended the match at 6&5.  Connor Knabe and Ben Fernandez had reached their goal of winning The Heart.   For the 31 holes played, the victors were 14-under par!