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Analysis

Nick Dunlap is still a mystery … let's enjoy it

January 22, 2024
LA QUINTA, CA - JANUARY 21: Nick Dunlap (a) (USA) is interviewed near the green on 18 after winning The American Express tournament at PGA West, Dye Stadium Course on January 21, 2024 in La Quinta, California. (Photo by Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

There's a quote that I've seen attributed to "the French"—my apologies in advance to all French people if nobody actually says this in your country—and it's a probably a strange one to read in a story about golf, but here goes:

"The best part of the affair is going up the stairs."

I've never had an affair, so I'll have to take their word for it, but I've always found this quote pretty applicable to a lot of situations in life. The basic meaning, at least for me, is that the early stage of anything—when there's hope and still a great deal of mystery and uncertainty—is often the most exciting part of the process. Everything after that is bound to be tinged with that inexorable, grim miser we call reality. To take a golf example, we just published a podcast about Andy Gardiner, the man who came up with the idea for the Premier Golf League that now lives on in LIV Golf. He eventually got left behind as the major players squared off, but the part of his story where he conceived of the idea and pushed it to the brink of success—his version of going up the stairs—is thrilling. How it played out once reality hit? Not so great, at least for him.

I thought of this quote again while watching Nick Dunlap become the first amateur winner on the PGA Tour since Phil Mickelson in 1991. It was a thrilling final round at PGA West, and probably the most fun I've had watching a non-major in a very long time. For those who follow amateur golf, Nick Dunlap isn't a new name; in fact, he's pretty decorated. He's the only guy other than Tiger to win both the U.S. Junior and the U.S. Amateur, he was on the victorious U.S. Walker Cup team last September, and he had a successful freshman season at Alabama. But for most casual golf fans, this past weekend was an introduction, and even for someone like me who should probably know better, I only remembered his Junior Am win after the Amex, when I saw a picture of him in a camo-patterned hat that triggered a memory. Before that, I never put together that it was the same person. And I wrote the story for Golf Digest about him winning the U.S. Junior. Point is, most of the golf world is in the "going up the stairs" phase with Nick Dunlap.

Now, a curse of modern life that I attribute mostly to the sheer speed of information made possibly by the internet is that we are conditioned to sprint up the stairs. I'm as guilty as anyone; if I get fascinated with some subject, I want to know everything all at once. I joked on X that I thought Dunlap was great, but because we live in 2024, I'll probably regret that sentiment in about three hours, and someone very accurately replied that there was probably someone going through Dunlap's own social media accounts at that very moment looking for dirt. It's the truth of how we exist. But when you sprint up the stairs, guess what? You also reach cold reality much faster, and again, reality is often a downer. All of which is to say that we should take a breath, slow down, and enjoy this moment in time where we really don't know much about Nick Dunlap, other than he’s 20 and his Alabama teammates are extremely happy for him. Not knowing is fine; it's temporary, but it's nice. This is a moment, I'm saying, that can be savored precisely because we don't know what we don't know.

Nick Dunlap could turn out to be an amazing human being. Watching his interview yesterday, and reading the transcripts, I instantly liked him. Nick Dunlap could also disappoint us in various ways, which obviously means different things to different people. Inevitably, he will disappoint someone. For instance, let's say LIV Golf smells a leverage play and at some point this week drops a $50 million offer on him. How Dunlap reacts to that moment will disappoint somebody, somewhere. Or, more accurately, a lot of somebodies. That will be his first clash with reality, in terms of his public, professional persona, and reality kills the mystery. In some eyes, he'll have his first blemish.

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Nick Dunlap, for many casual golf fans, is a blank slate right now after becoming the first amateur to win on the PGA Tour since 1991. And that's fine. There's no need to rush his story along.

Orlando Ramirez

Dunlap, having turned 20 less than a month ago, is surely a fully formed human being with a character and opinions and behaviors all his own. But he is also, for a lot of us, a blank slate, and that blank slate won't last long. There's a kind of magic to where he exists in this precise moment, and whatever else comes next, it won't feel like this again. Think of your experience with Tiger Woods. Tiger was the rare athlete who lived up to the hype and beyond, but if you're old enough to remember the very start of his career, be honest with yourself: Was it ever quite as good as that stretch in 1997 leading up to and culminating at Augusta? Don't get me wrong, it was still mind-blowing for years and years, but even in the best-case scenario of what reality can bring, I still think the magic of the early days was like a drug that you become habituated to over time. It's never quite as sharp as the very beginning.

I know I'm barking at the moon here, but it's worth the plea to whoever will listen: Don't hasten reality. Nick Dunlap is awesome. What he just accomplished is spectacular. Let's sit with it a while. The staircase will come to an end soon enough, but we don't have to take the next step quite yet. Let's let our imagination run wild, and let our excitement play out against the blank slate of the future … at least until it can't, and at least until it won't.

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