The American Express
After a 59 watch, Alabama amateur Nick Dunlap can match history with PGA Tour win
Nick Dunlap hits his tee shot on the ninth hole at La Quinta Country Club.
“Pressure’s a privilege.”
Among the highly talented members of his golfing generation, few are more qualified to speak those words than Nick Dunlap, who did so this week during his first appearance in the PGA Tour’s American Express. The 20-year-old sophomore at the University of Alabama has proven at every level of his young career that he has the mettle to embrace the most demanding on-course circumstances. After all, only Dunlap and Tiger Woods have ever captured both the U.S. Amateur and U.S. Junior Amateur championships.
Having acknowledged that, does Dunlap, at this tender age, possibly have the nerves to beat some of the best professionals in the world and seize a part of PGA Tour history?
We will find out on Sunday in the California desert, as Dunlap attempts to pull off what few others have, and Woods never did. After joining only Patrick Cantlay as the only amateurs to shoot 60 on the tour with a 12-under round Saturday at La Quinta Country Club, Dunlap takes a three-shot lead into the final day of The American Express. Starting in his fourth tour event, he has scored a stunning 27 under par, playing 54 holes over three courses on which he has never competed.
Dunlap is three strokes up on Sam Burns and four ahead of two-time major champ and fellow Alabama product Justin Thomas, who have 20 tour wins between them.
Even in the NIL era for college athletes, banking the winner’s check of $1.512 million is not a possibility for Dunlap, but the stakes are enormous nonetheless. A victory would make him only the eighth amateur since 1945 to win on the PGA Tour and the first in 33 years—the last being Phil Mickelson in Tucson’s Northern Telecom Open in 1991. Dunlap also would be able to join the tour immediately and have bountiful purses laid out in front of him.
"Pretty dang cool,” Dunlap, sounding his age, said in his post-round TV interview.
Earlier, the Huntsville, Ala., native was asked what winning on the PGA Tour would mean to him.
“Gosh, I don't know that I can put it into words,” he responded. “I think it's easy to go there, but I don't know. It's going to be hard. It's going to be something that I haven't experienced yet.”
Making the circumstances even grander theater will be the two playing in the final threesome with Dunlap on Sunday. Burns, a 27-year-old, already has won five times on tour. Thomas, a two-time major champion, is coming off a record-tying 11-under 61 at the PGA West Stadium Course. The two veterans both make a quick turnaround to the Stadium, where Burns shot 65, while Dunlap comes back after recording his own 65 on the Pete Dye design in the second round.
“I told myself after yesterday that I wanted to get to 30 under this weekend. I didn’t think I was going to deal with a frickin’ college kid shooting 60 today,” Thomas said with a grin.
Justin Thomas reacts on the 18th green during the third round of The American Express.
Sean M. Haffey
Overcast skies that kept the greens softer and no wind have made the desert courses play like dart boards over the first three days, and it figures the winner likely will have to blow past 60 with a number deep in the red.
“Looking at this place, it’s supposed to be easy, and guys are shooting low numbers. But you still have to go do it,” Dunlap said. “It’s still a golf course, and you still have to hit good shots. There’s out-of-bounds everywhere.”
Threatening 59 on Saturday was nothing new to Dunlap. At only 12 years old, he shot 59 on his home course in Huntsville, Ala., and he nearly achieved the magic number last year in college. In The AmEx third round at La Quinta, Dunlap drained six birdies in a seven-hole stretch on his front nine—he started on No. 10—and made three more birdies and an eagle to get to 11 under through 15 holes. Two birdies over the last three would get him to 59, but Dunlap managed just a birdie at No. 9.
“Go Tide!” will be the most shouted phrase on Sunday in what figures to be a boisterous gallery. Even Dunlap’s caddie, Hunter Hamrick, played golf for Alabama and roomed with Thomas in college. Still, Thomas and Dunlap don’t know each other well. Dunlap said they’ve traded texts since his U.S. Amateur win, but they’ve never played together. Thomas does know plenty about the youngster because of his résumé, and he’s gotten intel from Alabama golf coach Jay Seawell.
“I've heard he's an unbelievable player,” Thomas, 30, said. “He rises to the occasion and to the moment, which is something I don't think you can really teach to anybody. He's played well in all the biggest stages, which says something very impressive.
“Yeah, tomorrow's a great day for Alabama golf. I know Coach Seawell is going to be tuned in very closely to the TV. But for me, it's not necessarily about that, I'm trying to go chase him down and outrace everybody else.”
Thomas is thrilled with his position. This is a comeback year of sorts, with the 15-time tour champion coming off a winless season in which he didn’t advance to the FedEx Cup Playoffs for the first time in his career. He nevertheless was a captain’s pick for the Ryder Cup and went 1-2-1 in the lopsided American loss.
Thomas’ position heading into the season, on the outside of of getting into the tour’s Signature events, forced him to set a different early season schedule that includes rare appearances in The American Express and next week’s Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines.
But he proved that a lot of course reps aren’t required for a player of his caliber. He’d never played the Stadium Course in competition since it moved into The AmEx rotation, and he scorched it for 11 birdies, including a career record-tying six straight on Nos. 12-17.
Thomas has respect for Dunlap’s accomplishments, but knows how difficult getting through the final round will be. He recalled holding the lead late in a tournament in his rookie season, only to be overtaken.
“It’s a nerve-wracking feeling,” Thomas said. “”But it’s fun nerves. That why we all play. So [Dunlap] is going to feel some things he hasn’t tomorrow. But at the same time he’s played really, really well under similar circumstances.”
Indeed. As a wise young college golfer once said, “Pressure’s a privilege.”
Amateurs to win on the PGA Tour since 1945
Phil Mickelson, 1991 Northern Telecom Open
Scott Verplank, 1985 Western Open
Doug Sanders, 1956 Canadian Open
Gene Littler, 1954 San Diego Open
Frank Stranahan, 1948 Miami Open, 1946 Fort Worth Invitational; 1946 Kansas City Invitational; 1945 Durham War Bond Tournament.
Fred Haas, 1945 Memphis Invitational
Cary Middlecoff, 1945 North and South Open