Jake Knapp, of the United States, holds up his ball...

Jake Knapp, of the United States, holds up his ball after a birdie on the 9th hole during the third round of the Mexico Open golf tournament in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024. Credit: AP/Fernando Llano

VALLARTA, Mexico — PGA Tour rookie Jake Knapp ran off 11 birdies Saturday and seized control of the Mexico Open at Vidanta with an 8-under 63, giving him a four-shot lead going into the final round with a spot in the Masters on the line.

Knapp began the third round in a four-way share of the lead and playing in front of the largest gallery while paired with Alvaro Ortiz of Mexico.

He wasted no time making himself the target. Knapp, a 29-year-old from UCLA, stuffed his opening shot into 2 feet and the next one to 4 feet for a birdie-birdie start. Turns out he was just getting warmed up. He closed out the front nine with five birdies over the last six holes for a 28, and no one got closer to him than three shots the rest of the way.

Sami Valimaki of Finland lost momentum on the back nine until finishing with birdie from the collar of the green on the par-5 18th for a 67, leaving him four shots back.

Knapp was at 19-under 194, and only Valimaki was within six shots of him. Ben Silverman (63), Henrik Norlander (65) and Chan Kim (66) were seven shots behind.

Ortiz, the younger brother of Carlos Ortiz, didn't make a birdie until the 18th hole and had to settle for a 73, leaving him 10 shots out of the lead.

More than the Masters is at stake for Knapp and Valimaki, another PGA Tour rookie who earned his card this year from being among the leading 10 players on the European tour. A victory comes with a two-year exemption, a spot in the remaining five $20 million signature events and the PGA Championship.

Jake Knapp, of the United States, hits from the 10th...

Jake Knapp, of the United States, hits from the 10th hole rough during the third round of the Mexico Open golf tournament in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024. Credit: AP/Fernando Llano

Knapp has spent four years on the Canadian tour and three years on the Korn Ferry Tour, where last year he finished high enough on the points list to earn a PGA Tour card. During lean times, he worked as a bouncer in a club — it was called “The Country Club” — in Costa Mesa, California, and now appears to have hit his stride.

He contended at Torrey Pines and tied for third, and he's hoping that experience will serve him well in the final round of the Mexico Open.

“I've been playing professional golf for quite a while. I've had some good stuff and some bad stuff,” he said. “It will definitely all be a part of it.”

Matt Wallace, the other player who shared the 36-hole lead, had a 71 to fall eight behind.

Jake Knapp, of the United States, walks out from out...

Jake Knapp, of the United States, walks out from out of bounds with his ball during the third round of the Mexico Open golf tournament in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024. Credit: AP/Fernando Llano

Knapp, with his long, powerful swing, did everything well at the start. He made birdie putts of about 15 feet and 25 feet on the fourth and fifth holes, got up-and-down from a bunker on the par-5 sixth, drove the reachable par-4 seventh and two-putted from about 80 feet and closed out the front nine with a tee shot to 4 feet on the par-3 ninth.

Even when he got in trouble, driving so far left he had to take a penalty drop on the 10th, he escaped with bogey by making a 10-foot putt. He followed that with two more birdies to widen his lead to five shots at one point.

Knapp's short game kept the lead from being even larger. He hit a poor wedge and chip that led to bogey on the par-5 14th hole, and a weak chip from short of the 16th green led to another bogey. But he had no complaints from having so many chances, and converting 11 of them.

Of the leading five players going into the final round, none has won on the PGA Tour.

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