Those who know him always knew
LA, QUINTA, Calif. – There came a time when Jon Gibbons had to stop Nick Dunlap.
Gibbons, head pro at Greystone Golf & Country Club in Birmingham, Alabama, was getting complaints. Dunlap, not even a teenager then, kept beating all the club’s members.
“Guys were getting super ticked,” Gibbons said. “They didn’t want him to play tournaments. They knew he would win. I had to tell him not to play.”
To understand the phenomenon of Nick Dunlap is to realize everyone in Alabama has their own Nick Dunlap story. Like the time they watched him shoot 59 as a 12-year-old to win a local tournament by 13 shots. Or how he would take money off PGA Tour pros at Greystone as a middle-schooler. Or when he walked nine miles in 100-degree weather as a Korn Ferry Tour caddie at age 15, then ran several miles to the gym for a workout afterward.
The legend of Dunlap was nurtured in the Heart of Dixie, fostered by an environment primed to create a star, and assured by a young kid with the will to realize that potential. The American Express was Dunlap’s breakthrough moment as he made a hard-fought par at the last for a 2-under 70 and a four-round total of 29 under par.
He beat Christiaan Bezuidenhout (65) by one. This was the week a wider audience learned a fact that those around Dunlap knew much earlier – that this kid has the goods.
Dunlap, 20, cemented his place in golf history Sunday with a gutsy bounce-back from a double-bogey at the seventh hole, a 10-foot birdie putt at No. 16 and a par on 18 after he missed both the fairway and the green. He finished it off by draining a final putt of 5 feet, 9 inches that could hardly have been more consequential.
“I knew he was good enough. I knew he could handle it,” said Dunlap’s coach at Alabama, Jay Seawell. “It looked bleak with four to five holes to play, but that was Dunlap time. He does that at home. He’s done it his whole life and he did it out here on the PGA Tour today, too.”
Dunlap is the first amateur to win a PGA T0ur event since Phil Mickelson at the 1991 Northern Telecom Open. He’s the second-youngest winner on Tour in the last 90 years. He’s the only player to win the U.S. Junior Amateur, the U.S. Amateur and a PGA Tour event as an amateur. And he is instantly the headliner of a young generation of prodigies knocking down the doors of the PGA Tour.
Still just a college sophomore at Alabama, Dunlap was already on pace to earn a Tour card through the PGA Tour University Accelerated program. No need. He earned his card with this week’s performance, if he chooses to take it.
It’s a meteoric rise for a kid who was a teenager one month ago and spent last week riding in the back of an Alabama team van.
“If you would have said, hey, in five days you’re going to have a PGA Tour card or an opportunity for two years,” Dunlap said, “I would have looked at you sideways.”
Those close to him have seen hints of Dunlap’s immense talent for years, though.
Dr. Bhrett McCabe first knew Dunlap as the kid who wouldn’t leave. McCabe, a member at Greystone, remembers Dunlap, then maybe 10 years old, riding his bike up to the clubhouse daily. Dunlap would spend all day hitting balls and would only go home when the course was closing for the night. His work was not done, though. Dunlap’s family lived about 100 yards from the sixth hole at Greystone, a long, uphill par 5. In the evenings, Dunlap would go to the fairway and hit wedges.
“There would be a crater in the middle of the sixth fairway the next morning,” McCabe said.
Dunlap had an uncanny self-motivation, said McCabe, a professional sports psychologist who now works with Dunlap as his mental coach. His parents, not avid golfers, didn’t push him to play. They supported him, but they allowed him to chart his path. His drive came from within.
He was a high-level baseball and football player growing up, as well. One year, he was a finalist for the NFL Punt, Pass & Kick competition and went to the NFC Championship game. He could have just as easily played on the Alabama baseball team, said Seawell, Alabama’s golf coach. That he ended up playing golf was a product of his surroundings more than anything else.
“If his family was in Minnesota, that kid would’ve been an ice hockey player at the frozen pond every day,” McCabe said. “That’s just who he is. It just happened to be golf is the thing that connected to him to where he was.”
And Greystone was the ideal nursery for a young golfer. The club is home to more than a dozen Tour pros, and hosts the Regions Tradition, an annual major championship on PGA Tour Champions. Mark Blackburn’s teaching academy is based there, with a client list that includes Collin Morikawa and Max Homa, among others. It’s a course frequented by the Alabama and Auburn golf teams. Greystone, Country Club of Birmingham, Shoal Creek Country Club and Old Overton Club are all within a dozen miles of each other. It isn’t Jupiter, Florida, McCabe said, but it’s as close as it gets.
And Dunlap was one of the best juniors around, partly because he wasn’t like the others. He wasn’t obsessed with video games or toys. Greystone was his playground, and he couldn’t get enough. As early as 14, he played alongside Tour pros and the club’s top amateurs. Dunlap was learning how to play and behave from the exact people he hoped to join. All the tools were there. He was the No. 1 junior golfer in the class of 2022, according to Golfweek.
“Community helps raise greatness,” McCabe said.
Jeff Curl, a former Korn Ferry Tour player, was at the forefront of Dunlap’s support system. Curl took a 10-year-old Dunlap under his wing, introducing him to the Tour pros and getting him in their weekly games. He became a mentor and confidant. Curl was Dunlap’s sounding board for everything from how to hit certain shots to how to travel on the road.
Dunlap, in turn, carried Curl’s bag at numerous Korn Ferry Tour events, including an event in 100-degree heat in Dothan, Alabama. It was one of several times Curl realized Dunlap was a different kid. After a round, the duo returned to the hotel, and Curl could barely move. Dunlap, though, was donning shorts for a two-mile run to the gym and back to get a workout in.
“That’s when I knew we’re not the same; it’s just a different way of being wired,” Curl, who caddied for Dunlap in his U.S. Amateur victory, told Sports Illustrated. “But that’s why he can believe he’ll be the number one player in the world, and why he can believe no one will stop him.”
Dunlap’s drive hasn’t changed. He’s still the first player into the gym and the last to leave the range.
“Everybody wants to be good. What do you do when nobody’s looking?” Seawell said.
It also helped Dunlap to have someone nearby to push him. Gordon Sargent, the current top-ranked amateur in the world who has already locked up a Tour card through the Accelerated program, grew up just 20 minutes from Dunlap. The two were never very close. Sargent was a year older and played at Shoal Creek, but they occasionally ran into each other at local junior tournaments. Locally, Sargent was the more hyped of the two, partly because Dunlap’s family moved to Huntsville and South Carolina briefly before returning to Birmingham.
“Gordon’s always been like, the next big thing,” McCabe said. “And Nick … wasn’t always top of mind.”
Dunlap began catching up in 2021 with his first marquee victory, the U.S. Junior Amateur. That earned him his first PGA Tour-sanctioned start at the 2022 U.S. Open and provided Dunlap the internal validation that he belonged. It sounds unbelievable in retrospect, given that he was already playing alongside pros at Greystone and that Alabama was recruiting him, but it was a moment he needed.
“He realized it wasn’t a fluke,” McCabe said.
It was anything but. After years of hoping Dunlap “wouldn’t get too good too quick,” Seawell got Dunlap to commit to Alabama. By the time he reached the 2023 U.S. Amateur, he was a force in amateur golf. He won the Linger Longer Invitational, his first college individual victory as a freshman. He tied for fourth at regionals and shared 11th at the NCAA Championships. Then he won the Northeast Amateur and the North & South Amateur at Pinehurst No. 2, where he went 5-0 in match play. So it was hardly surprising when he took down Sargent in the Round of 64 at the U.S. Amateur and rolled through the rest of the competition to win the event.
“If I’m going to lose to someone, I want to lose to the best player in the field. And after I lost, I felt like he was the best player,” Sargent said.
With the win, Dunlap joined Tiger Woods as the only golfers to win both the U.S. Amateur and U.S. Junior Amateur. It’s not the only time Dunlap has drawn comparisons to Woods.
Invoking Woods, in comparison to any golfer, professional or amateur, is a dangerous game. But those around Dunlap bring it up unprompted. Dunlap conjures memories of Woods’s competitiveness. His intensity and focus remind them of the 82-time Tour winner. Dunlap doesn’t care who you are or what you have done. He wants to beat you.
It was evident when Dunlap beat Sam Burns and Justin Thomas in the final group at The American Express on Sunday, just as it was when he took down Sargent at the U.S. Am and when he aided the U.S. Walker Cup team to a win at Saint Andrews this summer.
“We’re not talking about how he hits it, fades it, cuts it, draws it,” McCabe said. “We’re not talking about that. We’re talking about his competitiveness. Tiger had all the shots, but Tiger’s elite game was competitiveness and focus in the heat of the moment. And that’s what Nick is.”
Seawell echoed the sentiment but pointed out that Dunlap “has an incredible way of competing without being personal.” There’s a humility and a refreshing vulnerability to Dunlap. He isn’t a robot. He will admit when there are nerves, as he did after his second round of The American Express.
The nerves were subdued well on Saturday. With the spotlight slowly centering on the 20-year-old, Dunlap shot 60 to match the lowest round ever shot by an amateur at a Tour event. They were evident on Sunday. Dunlap dumped his tee ball in the water on the par-4 seventh to relinquish his three-stroke lead. A moment like that would sink most amateurs. Not Dunlap. He made birdie on No. 8 then remained ready for his moment to pounce on a mistake.
Trailing Burns by one shot on No. 16, his moment arrived. An errant approach on the par-5 16th left Burns with a difficult up-and-down that he couldn’t convert for birdie. Meanwhile, Dunlap poured in an 11-foot birdie putt to regain a share of the lead. Then, on the famous island 17th, Dunlap found the putting surface while it was Burns’ turn to find the water. Dunlap made an easy par and Burns made a double bogey. Dunlap now had to par 18 – an adventure down the right rough, but it ended well.
“I don’t ever want to forget today,” he said.
Featured image of Nick Dunlap and his caddie Hunter Hamrick courtesy of the PGA Tour