Sun. Feb 25th, 2024

What seemed obvious Sunday became official four days later: Nick Dunlap is turning professional and will make his debut next week at Pebble Beach.

You might have thought it was a no-brainer.

That there was no debate.

That he had no other option.

But then why was he crying behind the lectern during his press conference at Alabama?

“It was the hardest, easiest decision I’ve ever had to make, by far,” he said Thursday morning.

Dunlap’s stunning performance at The American Express, where he stared down Ryder Cuppers Sam Burns and Justin Thomas to become the first amateur in 33 years to win on the PGA Tour, flipped his career and life upside down.

For his playing future, the implications are obvious. No longer is Dunlap just mentioned as the only player besides Tiger Woods to capture the U.S. Junior and U.S. Amateur. Now, he’s also alongside another legend of the game, Phil Mickelson, in becoming the latest college kid to topple the pros at the game’s top level.

Dunlap announces turning pro after PGA Tour win

Alabama sophomore Nick Dunlap announces he’s turning pro and will debut at Pebble Beach following an historic PGA Tour victory at the American Express Tournament.

Dunlap’s timing was impeccable too, in mid-January, at the beginning of this new era. There’s no better time to be an elite Tour player than at this very moment, with the advent of the signature-event series that features mostly no-cuts tournaments with purses of at least $20 million. Dunlap, by virtue of his AmEx victory, was granted direct access to that gilded life for the remainder of the season, in addition to the long runway of a Tour card through 2026 and at least three major invitations.

“A golden ticket,” he called it.

Dunlap has dreamed of being a full-time Tour player for as long as he could remember, since he was a self-described brat hustling the guys at Greystone Country Club, since he shot 59 as a 12-year-old, since he became one of the top juniors in the country. It became ohsoclose since arriving at Tuscaloosa, since he captured the U.S. Amateur, since he made the Walker Cup team, since he rose to No. 1 in the college game and, for one week at least, the World Amateur Rankings.

His triumph at PGA West was the culmination of so much work, so many sacrifices, so many people propelling him in the same direction. It was why he hit balls, why he played tournaments, why he sat through his college lectures.

And here it was, the Tour extending him what amounted to a three-year membership.

All he had to do was accept it.

So, why the tears?

“It was clear that I wanted to play pro golf and it was a golden opportunity to do that, with what the PGA Tour has provided,” he said.

“But telling them was the hardest thing, to tell them that I’m leaving mid-year and wasn’t going to get to play the rest of the season out with them. I didn’t plan on that. They didn’t plan on that. It’s just, unfortunately, that’s part of life. I was given a really cool opportunity, and I wanted to go try to chase that.”

Phil Mickelson

Nick Dunlap isn’t the only amateur PGA Tour winner to make his pro debut at Pebble Beach. Phil Mickelson did the same at the 1992 U.S. Open.

It may have been that simple. That, by bailing midseason, he felt like he was letting down his friends. That he wasn’t quite ready to say goodbye to the practice rounds and the bus rides and the inside jokes.

But you also can’t help but wonder whether Dunlap’s emotion stemmed from the head-spinning realization that his life has changed overnight. Until last week, he was squarely in that magical period before the Next Big Thing becomes the man of the present, with all of the attendant pressures and expectations and obligations. It was simple, blissful, stress-free: His girlfriend was flying in, he had finance homework due, his spring season beckoned.

And just like that, before anyone could prepare for it – before he could prepare for it – it was over.

The real world had arrived.

No wonder, in a moment of melancholy, he called it both “surreal” and “scary.”

“If I miss that putt,” Dunlap said, “then I’m playing in three weeks at [a college event at] Watersound.”

But the putt dropped in the center of the cup, just as so many others did during his record-setting week in the desert. Now he was receiving calls from Nick Saban and Donald Trump. Now he was being honored during the Alabama-Auburn basketball game. Now he was crying at the idea of living out his childhood dream of playing the Tour – and at age 20, no less.

Mickelson was that age, a second-semester college junior, when he won in Tucson in 1991. In the days afterward, he discussed why he wasn’t turning pro (and wouldn’t for another year and a half). In an interview with the New York Times, Mickelson remarked how fatigued he was and couldn’t fathom the idea of playing the following week, and the week after that, and the week after that, too. He said he didn’t think about the money lost as an amateur (at that time, just $180,000); that winning was his primary motivation to play.

But this was the most interesting bit, the keen understanding that the pros weren’t just a next step but, in fact, a massive leap: “Granted, I won, but that’s a little bit irrelevant. I did gain a little respect from the players, but real respect on the Tour is based on consistency and being in contention more than just winning one tournament. Right now, I’m honing my game here at ASU, and I’m also using the opportunity to get an education. So it is working hand-in-hand.”

These, of course, are wildly different times.

The college game has changed, the athletes more prepared than ever before, with their swings fine-tuned through advanced instruction, their bodies and equipment optimized, their competition stiffer and more cutthroat. But so has the landscape of pro golf. Next week, Dunlap will make his pro debut at Pebble Beach, in a $20 million tournament set on one of the most scenic pieces of property in the world. There are significant FedExCup and world-ranking points at stake. And though he forfeited last week’s $1.5 million first-place check, Dunlap needn’t worry about money ever again; he’ll make millions more in endorsements and appearances, to say nothing of his prodigious, on-course earning potential in the richest period in Tour history.

As he prepares to hit the road, Tour card in hand, Dunlap is maintaining his home base in Tuscaloosa for at least the next few months. He’s still planning to practice with his former teammates. To receive the occasional chipping lesson from Tide coach Jay Seawell. To play with his rescue dog and hang out with his same friends and live out the season as the famous college kid no longer taking classes.

“I want to at least keep that the same,” Dunlap said, “since everything else is changing.”

There’s no going back now. Once the tears dry, he’ll be ready to take on the world.

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