The education of Nick Dunlap brings new level of success
22 Jan,2024 Credit : Sean H. Haffey / Getty Images

By Tim Liotta


The education of Nick Dunlap brings new level of success

Nick Dunlap, who a week ago was a college sophomore seated in his place in the back of a van with his University of Alabama teammates, had just sunk a 5-foot-9 inch putt to win a PGA Tour event as an amateur. After embracing his caddy, he got a hug from Justin Thomas lasting just long enough for the two-time major champion to whisper something in Dunlap's ear.

"Justin had a lot of cool things to say, even coming down the stretch," said Dunlap, "the last chip, the last putt, after I made it, it's like, Hey, man, you're a PGA TOUR winner forever, and just let that soak in, let everything around you, the people, the moment, just take a second and let it all in."

The 20-year-old Dunlap took in the fact that he'd become the first amateur in more than three decades to win a PGA Tour event, first since Phil Mickelson in 1991. This less than a year after he became the first since Tiger Woods to win the U.S. Junior Amateur and the U.S. Amateur. Dunlap is the first to acommplish both. 

"I've always tried to chase something that nobody else has done," Dunlap said Sunday after posting a 29-under-par score of 259 to win the American Express Championship. "That's why I always put in the work that I do, I want to do something special, and something memorable, not only for me, but maybe to leave something behind for somebody else to try to follow and gauge at. 

"For me, that's Tiger, right. Like I probably won't ever even close to some of the records he set, but I always try to set myself, you know, I'm trying to chase him. I know that's an extremely high bar, and I don't know if that comes off really cocky or not, but for me that's something, I consider him the greatest ever, and for me to try to chase that, and even to be in somewhat of a conversation with him is, like I had said, it's a dream come true, and it's why I do what I do."

What Dunlap did in 2023 was win just about every amateur event out he entered - scoring victories in the Northeast Amateur and North & South Amateur at Pinehurst No. 2, before overcoming a terrible start in stroke play en route to his U.S. Amateur victory.

Asked what he learned about himself at the U.S. Amateur, Dunlap said. "I just learned that I could do it. I always thought I could, but when you're 5-over through seven and your mind is spinning and you can't see straight, obviously it's red, you're not really looking at that. You're looking at the negative, like man, I think I was in last at one point.

"For me to be able to snap out of that, kind of slow things down, I tried to walk slow, think slow, take three extra sips of water, back off, whatever it took for me to slow down and get back into my process, I think I just learned that anything is possible as long as you put your mind to it."

Nick Dunlap's Major Championship Record

So, after being given a sponsor's exemption into the Amex two weeks ago, Dunlap arrived in the California desert with the mindset of furthering his tournament golf education.

"Just try to come here and learn. I hadn't been on this stage much and I got paired with Wilson (Furr) the first day, so it was a really comfortable pairing," he said. ". It was a past Alabama player. And then to play with those two guys (Thomas and Sam Burns) today, the amount of success they have had out here, it was cool just to watch."

By the time Dunlap reached the first tee Sunday, a day after shooting 60 to take a three-shot lead into the final round, he "was so nervous that I don't know if I could have done anything. Most nervous I've ever been, by far. Just tried to breathe, but also look up and enjoy it a little bit."

Dunlap admitted feeling "nerves on every shot" but they did not manifest themselves sufficiently until the seventh hole when he pulled a 3-iron into the water on his way to a double-bogey that would wipe out his 54-hole advantage. 

"I just think it was a bad swing," Dunlap said. "I made a lot of really good swings all week, and especially yesterday, I made shots and putts that I did not think I was going to make. ... It's a pretty straightforward 3-iron if you're just kind of out playing for fun, but when you have a three-shot lead, it's a little bit harder."

Although Dunlap looked calm in the moment, he said, "I wish I had some kind of heart monitor on and you wouldn't have seen that, but, yeah, most nervous I've ever been, by far. Just try to breathe as much as I can, walk slow, try to do everything slow. In that moment, everything speeds up.

"I would say I have had a little bit of experience leading golf tournaments, but nothing to this extent. Obviously, the PGA TOUR's extremely different. So that whole process was different for me, and whether it had turned out the way I was looking or not, I was just going to try to learn from it."

What is Dunlap trying to learn? At the U.S. Amateur last summer, he admitted trying to reach the bar set by Tiger Woods, saying, "We talked about it all week. He's the reason I got into it, and just to have my name even halfway associated with Tiger who's the greatest to ever play is the reason I'm playing golf, and it means everything to me."

So, when the deciding moment of Sunday's final round arrived at the 17th tee, where Dunlap and Burns arrived tied for the lead. Dunlap hit first, landing his approach on the front of the island green 168 yards away and then watched Burns push his tee shot into the watched.  

"My heart rate went through the roof," Dunlap said, "and just standing on that 17th green and then leaving with a two-shot lead, I think I said some things to (his caddy) Hunter (xxxxx) that I probably can't say on this microphone. But, yeah, just try to breathe as much as I can."

Dunlap two-putted for par, and, after Burns made double bogey, momentarily Dunlap had a two-shot lead going to the final hole. Christiaan Bezuidenhout rolled in a birdie putt on the 18th hole to cut Dunlap's lead to a shot. 

His tee shot on 18 landed in the right rough, leaving Dunlap 202 yards to the green of 435-yard, par-4. With water on the left, Dunlap aimed his iron shot to the right edge of the green, only to see it bounce right into a collection area some 23 yards from the flag. From there, he ran a chip past the hole to set up the deciding putt. 

"As a kid, you kind of whack it around all over the putting green and every putt's for a chance to win, whether that's a PGA Tour event, the Masters, the U.S. Open," said Dunlap. "And to have that putt, I took a little bit longer than I normally might, and just take in the moment and nothing's for granted. I may not ever have that chance again, and I just want to embrace it. You know, like I said, it may not ever happen again."

Dunlap admitted that, leading up to Sunday's final round, his mind raced through countless scenarios.

"Everybody's got doubts. I probably had a thousand different scenarios in my head of how today was going to go, and it went nothing like I expected. I think that was the cool part about it. That's golf."

After celebrating with family, posing for pictures with the trophy, Dunlap sat down for the press conference reserved for the media, and was asked: "Have you made a decision on - you have PGA Tour membership if you want it now or is that something you need to take more time to think about?"

"Oh, boy," Dunlap responded, breaking into a smile. "... I have no idea. I really don't. It's really cool to have that opportunity in the first place, and starting the week, if you would have said, hey, in five days you're going to have a PGA TOUR card or an opportunity for two years, I would have looked at you sideways.

"But, no, that's something that it doesn't just affect me, it affects a lot of people, coach back there and my teammates, and it's a conversation I need to have with a lot of people before I make that decision."

Asked the same question during a second virtual press conference, Dunlap expanded, saying, "I've had goals outside of that for a little while, one of them being No. 1 player in the world as an amateur, and

I've always wanted to win a ring with Alabama."

The 20-year-old sophomore admitted he had homework that he would probably put off, and that he would next be readying himself for the PGA Tour's Farmer's Insurance Championship. The only thing he is not sure of is whether a PGA Tour victory gets him a better seat on that next van ride.

"Maybe a seat forward," Dunlap said with a laugh. "No, normally it goes based off of youngest to oldest, and I'm normally back in the back, and Seawell will hit a speed bump and your head will hit the top of the ceiling, and then - hopefully, we'll see."