CHERRY HILLS VILLAGE, COLORADO | It was late Wednesday morning at Cherry Hills Country Club, the temperature quickly climbing into the upper 90s, when the U.S. Amateur’s hottest match was ready to commence.
A couple hundred gallery members gathered around the first tee, an incredibly rare occurrence for a round-of-64 match. Everyone wanted to see two Alabamians and soon-to-be U.S. Walker Cup teammates who carry hopes of professional stardom: Gordon Sargent, the world’s top-ranked amateur and a former NCAA champion, and Nick Dunlap, the No. 1 junior golfer in the class of 2022 and perhaps the fastest-rising amateur in all of golf. It would have been a dream championship match, but it was happening right out of the match-play gates.
A few moments later, Dunlap’s caddie – mentor and former Korn Ferry Tour player Jeff Curl – told his player to take a look around.
“When we were walking down No. 1, he’s like, ‘Man, just take a look back and just embrace this,’” Dunlap said. “I didn’t even see it. I couldn’t feel my hands.
“It was kind of on 17 when I was finally able to look up, like ‘Man, this is pretty cool,’ especially at a place like this and in the match we were in. It was pretty neat.”
Dunlap lost the first hole against Sargent but made four back-nine birdies to close him out on the 17th green, the growing horde of spectators surrounding what was the first island green on a par-5 in American golf.
Dunlap knocked off hometown favorite Connor Jones, 4 and 2, in the round of 32 on Wednesday before besting Bowen Mauss, 5 and 3, to reach Friday’s quarterfinals. Combined with the impressive victory over Sargent one day earlier, Dunlap’s play has said something followers of amateur golf have been slowly recognizing over the past 12 months: his ceiling is as high as it gets.
That assessment, echoed by many, is part qualitative and part quantitative. Dunlap was a conquering junior, the 2021 U.S. Junior Amateur champion (the only Alabama native to win it) who nearly repeated the feat a year later. A longtime verbal commit to the Alabama Crimson Tide, Dunlap reopened his recruitment but then chose Alabama once again – the homeschooled Huntsville resident had been attending the program’s camps from age 11. After being the top-ranked junior in his high school class, Dunlap had nine top-15 finishes as a freshman last season, including a victory in the Linger Longer Invitational.
It took time for Dunlap to get in the groove of college competition because he was recovering from tendinitis in his wrist, an issue that popped up around the 2022 U.S. Open. He hit his stride in mid-spring, tying for fourth in the NCAA Norman Regional and tying for 11th in the NCAA Championship.
By the time he finished his first college season and felt completely healthy, Dunlap really caught fire. He qualified for the U.S. Open in June and then won the Northeast and North & South amateur championships to solidify his position on the Walker Cup squad. Before he reached the quarterfinals of the Western Amateur, Dunlap was named to the American team that will travel to St. Andrews to take on Great Britain and Ireland in two weeks.
He was the No. 63 player in the World Amateur Golf Ranking at the start of 2023. Less than eight months later, he has climbed to No. 9.
The results are one aspect, but Dunlap more than looks the part. He has sponsorships from Adidas, TaylorMade, True Temper and Wealthspire Advisors, among others. And at 6-foot-3 with a powerful swing that produces a distinct fade, Dunlap is fond of wearing camouflage on the course but otherwise can’t be missed.
“He’s as talented as any player I’ve ever coached,” Alabama coach Jay Seawell told Global Golf Post before comparing Dunlap favorably to Justin Thomas, a former Crimson Tide standout. “He just has what I call an old soul and old mentality, what I call a golfer from the old days. He has that will to compete that separates him from a lot of guys.
“He’s going to play at the highest level. I think he’s a future tour player.”
Maybe an even better endorsement came from Caleb Surratt, the player who was named to the Walker Cup team at the same time as Dunlap.
“He’s going to be very successful on the PGA Tour, and he’s going to be around for a long time,” Surratt said. “I’m just going to try to stay in company with him.”
Dunlap grew up at Greystone Golf & Country Club in Hoover, southeast Birmingham, a three-time junior club champion at the private club. That is where he met Curl, a 44-year-old who once made 20 starts on the Korn Ferry Tour and is now heavily invested in his mentee’s journey. (Curl’s father, Rod, was the first Native American to win a PGA Tour event.)
Dunlap’s promise was evident early when, at age 7, he shot 38 for nine holes at a U.S. Kids event at Highland Park and won by six strokes. It was the first golf tournament he ever played. Unlike many of his peers, Dunlap didn’t specialize in golf early. In fact, he was a national finalist in the NFL Punt, Pass & Kick contest that brought him to participate in festivities at an NFC Championship one year. Golf eventually won out over football and baseball, of course. It must have been a clear signal when Dunlap shot 59 at Highland Park when he was only 12 years old. Dunlap was mostly uninterested in typical “kid” activities toward which other youngsters gravitate, and he was seemingly born to be a pro golfer once he became invested in golf.
“He’d be at the course working on his game whether you told him he needed to or not,” Greystone head pro Jon Gibbons said.
It was even more obvious when Dunlap, 14 at the time, caddied for Curl in a tournament on a particularly warm day in Dothan, Alabama. When the two got back to the hotel, Dunlap started changing into gym clothes.
“Nick, where the hell are you going?” Curl asked Dunlap.
“The gym is only 1.8 miles away,” Dunlap replied. “I’ll just run there.”
He ran there, worked out and ran back. There was no doubting his work ethic.
That was something instilled in him from not only Curl but his parents, Jim and Charlene, who have, according to many around Dunlap, not coddled their son, allowing him to take full control of his golf schedule and everything about his pursuit. They often don’t travel to tournaments but remain supportive, such as when they drove through the night and arrived at 5 a.m. before the final round of the U.S. Junior Amateur that Dunlap won.
That has all created one prototypical modern-day amateur – with athleticism to match a high golf IQ – who seems destined for a spotlight in pro golf.
When asked what type of player he could be in the future, Dunlap gives a fitting response. He looks and plays like a certain two-time major champion and eventual hall of famer.
“I’ve always looked up to D.J.,” Dunlap said of Dustin Johnson. “I’ve played in his event a couple times. I feel like I can hit the ball a fairly good ways off the tee, and I’d like to try to center my game around his and try to mimic his mental game. I think it’s unbelievable how he carries himself on the golf course.”
He might get there one day, and one day might be a lot sooner than we realize.
© 2023 Global Golf Post LLC
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