LAKEWOOD RANCH, Florida — In an area flooded with golf courses, 24-year-old Phillip Knowles has played just about all of them.
Growing up in nearby Bradenton and playing on the Bradenton Christian School golf team gave Knowles the opportunity to tee it up at some of the most elite facilities around.
And as a two-time All-American at the University of North Florida, he expanded his list of A-list golf venues considerably during his four years as an Osprey.
But this week will be different.
First, there is the matter of getting a fair shake of a $600,000 purse. Second, the allure of a coveted PGA Tour card awaits at the end of the Korn Ferry Tour season.
Knowles, who received a sponsor’s exemption, will be among the field of 144 golfers set to begin first-round play Thursday at the third annual LECOM Suncoast Classic at Lakewood National Golf Club, the circuit’s first event since October. The tournament field is headlined by nine of the top-10 in Korn Ferry Tour standings, as well as defending champion Andrew Novak.
“This is so much fun,” Knowles said while working on his short game at Lakewood National’s practice area. “This is where I was born. I played my junior and high school golf around the area.
“There is a huge comfort in being able to play at home. Being with my family is very special. I have spent a lot of my time, lately, alone with everything that is going on.”
In high school, Knowles finished third in the state, won an individual region title and also captured the coveted championship at the Donald Ross Invitational. He also played on the high school baseball and soccer teams and won the Manatee County Golf Championship along the way.
But he credits his time in Jacksonville, where he still lives, with his true maturation as a golfer.
“I was terrible my freshman year,” Knowles said. “But I learned so much there. By my senior year I was a completely different player. My college career was a great evolution.”
Knowles won three college tournaments and finished ninth at the 2018 NCAA Golf Championships and UNF was a consistent Top 25 team during his tenure in Jacksonville.
“You were all probably the best player on your high school teams,” Knowles said. “You spend every day together. It’s great competition. And that is what makes people better. It was awesome.
“I learned to think my way around the golf course. I also learned how to relax on the golf course and trust myself. That was a big part of it.”
Knowles has earned $13,185 thus far as a professional. His ultimate goal is the same as the other 143 golfers playing at Lakewood National.
“The goal is to get to the PGA Tour,” he said. “That’s the goal. That’s the dream. To get there you got to go through this tour.
“This is another start, another opportunity. I am grateful to have an opportunity at all.”
LECOM Classic notebook
Other local players in the field include Bradenton residents Erik Barnes and Sean Kelly; Stephen Stallings Jr., a resident in the Lakewood National community; David Perritt, who won a qualifier among head golf pros to earn an exemption into the tournament (Perritt is the Regional Director of Operations for Lakewood National Golf Club); and Michael Colgate, who grew up in Sarasota and played golf at Sarasota High, earned late entry to the field after Monday qualifying … If Davis Riley or Jared Wolfe win it would be their third win on the Korn Ferry Tour which comes with an immediate promotion to the PGA Tour. … Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, no PGA Tour cards were awarded in 2020 and the 2020 season has been combined with the 2021 season to form an extended Korn Ferry Tour 2020-21 super-season. … The LECOM Suncoast Classic kicks off two consecutive weeks of professional golf in the area as the PGA Tour’s World Golf Championships-Workday Championship at The Concession will take place Feb. 25-28 at The Concession Golf Club in Bradenton.