The American Express

Nick Dunlap stood tallest in the biggest moments to become the first amateur to win a PGA Tour event in 33 years

January 21, 2024

Sean M. Haffey

No sport forces us to question what we think we know more than golf does because no sport has the ability to surprise us more than golf. It’s an unpredictable game that even at the highest levels is played by imperfect practitioners possessing skills that are tenuously grasped and unevenly applied.

Chaos tends to ensue, but generally there is a measure of order restored at the finish and a result that makes some sense emerges. Then there is the conclusion of the American Express on Sunday in La Quinta, Calif., where 20-year-old Nick Dunlap became the youngest amateur ever to win a PGA Tour event. The outcome is shocking, an amateur playing in his fourth tour event beating a field that included 21 of the top 50 in the world, including World No. 1 Scottie Scheffler. The kid, who had missed the cut in his only other tour starts, stared down his playing partners, Sam Burns and Justin Thomas, members of the most recent U.S. Ryder Cup team who have 20 tour wins between them.

Again shocking. “I’m still in shock. I really am,” said the young man who did all the shocking things to bring about such a seismic occurrence in a game rife with all kinds of recent surprises. But maybe it’s not that shocking after all. Talent doesn’t check birth certificates and a game that allows for endless possibilities just provided a finish a pure serendipity because, well, this guy is really good.

One day after shooting 60 to tie the record for the lowest score by an amateur in a tour event, Dunlap weathered bouts of doubt and jangled nerves to shoot a two-under 70 at the Stadium Course at PGA West for a one-stroke victory over South Africa’s Christiaan Bezuidenhout. Dunlap capped the victory by getting up and down for par from off the green, drilling a six-footer that caused him to shout with excitement before he was reduced to tears as he hugged his parents.

He finished with a 29-under 259 aggregate total and started an immediate period of inner turmoil as he decides how to proceed with a career that already appeared promising after he won the U.S. Amateur and U.S. Junior, a feat only Tiger Woods previously accomplished. Dunlap had to forego the $1.512 million first prize, but he possesses an exemption on the PGA Tour through 2026 along with myriad additional benefits.

Dunlap couldn’t say whether he would continue on at the University of Alabama, where he is a sophomore member of the golf team, or start chasing the pot of gold, an opportunity that he earned with poise and maturity beyond his years. He was still processing what the hell happened over a magical four days after accepting a sponsor exemption two weeks earlier.

“I probably had a thousand different scenarios in my head of how today was going to go, and it went nothing like I expected,” said the native of Huntsville, Ala. “I think that was the cool part about it. That's golf. I hit a lot of shots that I didn't think I was going to hit and then I hit some shots that went way better than I expected, and the same thing with putting. Like I said, I just think that's the cool part of golf.”

Dunlap, who came into the tournament loaded with confidence after shooting an 11-under 60 at NorthRiver Club in Tuscaloosa, Ala., the day before leaving for California, is the first amateur to win a tour event since Phil Mickelson captured the 1991 Northern Telecom Open. He is the second youngest winner on tour since World War II, trailing only Jordan Spieth, but he eclipsed Chick Evans, winner of the 1910 Western Open, as the youngest amateur to win a tour event.


Orlando Ramirez

Burns, three shots behind Dunlap after 54 holes but his nearest pursuer, looked to be the spoiler to a potential storybook tale by overtaking Dunlap with a six-foot birdie putt on the 11th hole, and the Louisiana golfer remained in front until the 16th hole when Dunlap rolled in a 10-footer for birdie to forge a tie at 29 under.

It’s worth noting here that Burns arrived in Palm Springs with the initials “RTR” shaved into his head, having lost a bet with Thomas, another Alabama product, when the Crimson Tide defeated Burns’ LSU football team in November. Roll Tide Roll was the meaning. It must have sunk in. Burns rolled over at the most crucial moment.

After Dunlap found the green at the par-3 island 17th hole, Burns flamed his tee shot to the right of the green and into the water. The ensuing double bogey enabled Dunlap to forge a two-shot lead. Burns then fully capitulated by driving into the water left of the fairway at 18, leading to another double bogey.

With an 11-foot birdie at the last, Bezuidenhout completed a 65 and climbed within one, a fact Dunlap didn’t realize until he arrived at his ball beside the green. No matter. Dunlap was up to the challenge, something you’d expect from a kid who shot 59 when he was 12 years old.

“He’s tough. He loves to compete. He’s always responded to big moments,” said Jay Seawell, Dunlap’s golf coach at Alabama. “The Am, of course. The junior. Every step of the way. I’ve known him since he was 10-11 years old. He came to camp. This is his dream. … I knew he was good enough. I knew he could handle it. I know it looked bleak with 4-5 holes to play. But that was Dunlap time.”

The final putt, the pressure-is-a-privilege moment he had mentioned only a day earlier, was the chance to live out a dream far sooner than he ever imagined. And attempting to live out a dream is more pressure than most of us can handle. “Most nervous I've ever been, by far. Just tried to breathe.”

And when the stroke was true and the ball dived dead in the middle, Dunlap was breathing in some rarefied air.

“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. “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.”

But chances are that it will happen again. Dunlap time already has arrived on tour. “It’s everything I’ve ever dreamed of,” he said. “I don’t ever want to forget today.”

You make history and no one will ever forget.