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Why Nick Dunlap’s feel-good story is the best argument against the planned golf-ball rollback

January 31, 2024
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Nick Dunlap's victory as an amateur at the American Express comes 33 years after Phil Mickelson accomplished the same feat at the Tucson Open.

Orlando Ramirez

The most sensational story in golf is when someone performs beyond their level. An aging lesson-giver contends at the PGA Championship (Michael Block), a 12-year-old qualifies for the U.S. Women’s Open (Lexi Thompson), a college kid wins a PGA Tour event. As anyone who caught even a bit of Nick Dunlap last week now knows, his victory as an amateur at the American Express at PGA West in La Quinta, Calif., comes 33 years since Phil Mickelson accomplished the same feat at the Tucson Open, the sort of time accounting typically reserved for comets.

In golf, these things happen. “Instead of Nick Dunlap being in school this week, he’s playing with the best players in the world, and his life has completely changed, and that’s an amazing story, [stories] that are hard to create in other sports,” said Rory McIlroy on the eve of the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, where this week Dunlap makes his professional debut. Longshots hit at the club and amateur level, too. Even you might have a wild dream about what putting it all together at the right time would mean.

Not to be a spoilsport, as there are umpteen fascinating shells to gather in the receding roll tide of Dunlap becoming a former University of Alabama golfer—the gifted athlete of non-golfing parents, an only child raised golfing and hunting deer in the company of men, a member of a new generation whose understanding of the swing is unprecedentedly technically certain, the gilded gauntlet of being a rising star in wartime—but I would like to talk about the proposed golf-ball rollback.

Whether it’s a longer or shorter ball, Nick Dunlap is a strong reason we should all play the same one.

Last year, I made a plea for unification that fetched various degrees of agreement and confusion. My main point was and is, it’s nice that we all play under the same rules because there’s no clean way to cut a line through the jumbled and joyful matrix that is tournament golf. Although much remains to be decided, especially with rumors that the PGA Tour could defy the USGA and R&A’s plan to make the ball fly a little shorter, we are heading toward bifurcation, or two sets of rules, for an interim period if not longer. In this future world, there is no way any golfer who plays the unrestricted ball will win a meaningful competition that requires the restricted ball in what’s essentially a first try. The unfamiliarity with new equipment would be too much to overcome. I say that as a competitor in amateur tournaments, and as a reporter at professional ones. “It’s going to be major,” says Keegan Bradley, who has hit theoretical prototypes. Even just switching to new models during his career as a pro, “I’ve typically spent a few months each time experimenting with driver shafts, getting used to the flight and spin and yardages,” Bradley told me. “It’s a lot.”

Of course, in this future it’s likely the reigning U.S. Amateur champion and a top Division I NCAA player, a guy like Nick Dunlap, would be playing the shorter ball anyway. His schedule would consist mostly of the “elite amateur” tournaments that would be part of the initial phase of the golf-ball rollback. But would learning to play a new ball have slowed his development, maybe by six months or a shot or two? Also, it’s likely the U.S. Women’s Amateur wouldn’t require the shorter ball, and the LPGA Tour would. Hence, there would be no chance of a female equivalent of Nick Dunlap. No Nikita is too bad because I bet she’d have a great story, too.

It is a tad wonky to cry about remote possibilities being reduced to zero, but it’s important to understand the cascading effect. Wherever the line is drawn, golfers will cease to magically cross it overnight. If the rollback includes the U.S. Amateur but not the U.S. Junior Amateur, we’ll be robbed of the thrill of watching some pubescent 14-year-old make a run against college guys. If the rollback includes the U.S. Junior Amateur but not high school golf, gone will be the story of local boy makes good against all odds. A silver-haired legend wins the senior club championship one week with one ball and then beats all the young guys the next with a shorter ball? I doubt it.

It’s possible this era of bifurcation lasts only two years, between 2028 and 2030, but it’s also possible rogue factions playing nonconforming balls could continue forever. In which case, let’s hope a future Francis Ouimet isn’t one of them.

“This just feels like the wrong time to be doing this,” Bradley said. “Seems like 2028 could be about the time the game just starts to feel settled again, and then we’ll have this.”

Good luck to 20-year-old Nick Dunlap this week at Pebble Beach. He has never played any of the courses in Monterey before, and his life has turned upside up the past week, sleeplessly signing deals and incorporating himself, emotionally bidding his college teammates adieu, setting his travel schedule, all things he thought he’d eventually do across four months, not four days. Despite all that, it’s an incredible story of a dream come true.

Let’s savor it because it’s the sort of thing that might not happen anymore.