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In just his ninth PGA Tour start, Jake Knapp will take his first 54-hole lead into the final day of the 2024 Mexico Open. Among the quartet of leaders at the halfway point, the 29-year-old rookie raced ahead of his counterparts early in the third round with seven birdies across his first nine holes to turn in 28. Knapp ultimately signed for an 8-under 63 to stand at 19 under for the tournament and four clear of fellow rookie Sami Valimaki. In addition to Valimaki, only three other players are within seven of the lead.

Knapp's front nine 7-under 28 marked the lowest nine-hole score in tournament history and tied Wyndham Clark from the third round of the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am for the lowest nine hole score on the PGA Tour this season. His 11 birdies are also a personal best.

While Knapp's scorecard was littered with circles, it was a square which proved to be the most pivotal. Fresh off a birdie on the par-3 9th, Knapp went to the tee of the par-4 10th looking to hold serve on one of the most difficult holes on all the PGA Tour.

Finding the hazard left of the fairway with a long iron in hand, Knapp did well to play his third in front of the green. His fourth settled just inside 10 feet and his bogey-putt settled in the bottom of the cup maintaining what momentum he had. 

Knapp quickly righted the wrong — a common theme on his back side — with a birdie on the 11th and another on the 12th. Sloppy dropped shots on the par-5 14th and par-4 16th were offset with birdies on the two closing holes and gave Knapp a four-stroke edge heading into the final round. 

Known in a past life as a bouncer at a nightclub, Knapp understands what is on the line Sunday. Two years of job security, access to signature events and major championships, 500 FedEx Cup points and a whole lot of money. One more day of quality play will change the trajectory of his career forever.

The leader

1. Jake Knapp (-19)

Knapp ranks first in strokes gained tee to green, third in strokes gained off the tee and first in strokes gained approach through three rounds. It has been a clinic with his full swing, however, as strong as his ball striking has been, his short game has left plenty to be desired. His putting hid some deficiencies around the greens early in his third round, but they ultimately reared their ugly heads on the back nine. 

Knapp hit poor chip after poor chip on his inward half and missed an opportunity to put together a truly special 18 and slam the door shut on this tournament. There will be sweaty moments Sunday where his short game will need to answer the bell and if it does, Knapp will become a PGA Tour winner. If it doesn't, Knapp might welcome some players back into this thing.

Other contenders

2. Sami Valimaki (-15)
T3. Ben Silverman, Henrik Norlander, Chan Kim (-12)
T6. Robert MacIntyre, Justin Lower, Erik Van Rooyen, Matt Wallace (-11)

Valimaki's career has been interesting to watch unfold as he was the DP World Tour Rookie of the Year in 2020 thanks to a win and a top-five finish at the DP World Tour Championship. It felt like sky was the limit, but the struggles came the following two years with 17 missed cuts across 48 tournaments and only one top-five result during that span. A win in Qatar in addition to some solid play allowed the Finn to earn his PGA Tour card as a top-10 finisher (among those without PGA Tour status) on the DP World Tour in 2023. 

He hasn't done much across his first four starts in 2024, but Valimaki has proven to rise to the occasion when in contention. His irons finally popped in Round 3 and if he can marry that approach play with the red-hot putter he should love his chances to steal the trophy from Knapp.

Checking in on Tony Finau

Unless something biblical occurs Sunday, the defending champion will not be going back-to-back in Mexico. Finau has been raising a lot of things lately from his ball-striking metrics to the toe of his putter and it is the lowering of that club which draws interest. The six-time PGA Tour winner entered the week among the worst putters on the PGA Tour and ranked 169th out of 170 players from 4 to 8 feet making a shade over 37% of his putts. Mind you, the 50% point on the PGA Tour is that upper range of 8 feet. 

Finau has made a switch to his putting setup lowering the toe of his blade to touch the ground and the results have been encouraging. He's gained more than one stroke on the greens through three rounds which is much improved for him and could be a sign of things to come as the PGA Tour transitions from the bumpy poa annua of California to the grainy Bermuda of Florida.

Tony Finau putting during the third round of the 2024 Mexico Open Getty Images

2024 Mexico Open updated odds and picks

Odds via Sportsline Consensus

  • Jake Knapp: 1/4
  • Sami Valimaki: 11/2
  • Chan Kim: 60-1
  • Matt Wallace: 75-1
  • Erik Van Rooyen: 75-1
  • Ben Silverman: 75-1
  • Henrik Norlander: 80-1

More likely than not, Knapp will take this home and 1/4 isn't a horrible price for this to happen. He's my pick to win, but with that being said, Hideki Matsuyama entered the final round of the Genesis Invitational as high as 150-1 so anything is possible. Knapp looks super solid with his ball striking but it may be difficult for him to replicate his performance on the greens from Saturday. If he does trip up someone like Kim at 60-1 could be right there waiting to pounce if he is able to card something in the low 60s like Knapp did Saturday.

Rick Gehman and Patrick McDonald recap Round 3 at the Mexico Open at Vidanta. Follow & listen to The First Cut on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.