Golf

Nick Dunlap, 20, becomes 1st amateur winner on PGA Tour in 33 years

Nick Dunlap became the first amateur in 33 years to win on the PGA Tour, holding on for a one-shot victory over Christiaan Bezuidenhout at The American Express in La Quinta, Calif., on Sunday.

Reigning U.S. Amateur champion is 1st to accomplish feat since Phil Mickelson

A men's golfer pumps his fist in celebration.
Nick Dunlap of the United States reacts to winning The American Express on Sunday in La Quinta, Calif. (Orlando Ramirez/Getty Images)

Nick Dunlap doesn't possess a false confidence, and he doesn't project a supernatural calm. The University of Alabama sophomore fully understood just how crazy it was to be fending off a field of professionals Sunday while he tried to become the PGA Tour's first amateur winner in 33 years.

"Most nervous I've ever been, by far," Dunlap said. "Just tried to breathe, but also look up and enjoy it a little bit."

The 20-year-old simply played through it all — through his mistakes, the rising pressure and the overall improbability of his week at The American Express.

Dunlap came out of it with a victory that could herald the arrival of a major golf talent — and one who might not even need to finish the homework he brought with him to the West Coast.

Dunlap swallowed his nerves one last time to make a six-foot par putt on the final hole, holding on for a one-shot victory over Christiaan Bezuidenhout in La Quinta, Calif.

"Everybody's got doubts," Dunlap said. "I probably had a thousand different scenarios in my head of how today was going to go, and it went nothing like I expected. I think that was the cool part about it. That's golf."

The reigning U.S. Amateur champion is the tour's first amateur winner since Phil Mickelson at the Tucson Open in 1991. Playing in his fourth tour event, Dunlap became the seventh amateur winner since 1945 — and the third since 1957.

The only amateur in the 156-player field in the tournament long known as the Bob Hope Desert Classic, Dunlap surged into a three-shot lead with a sizzling 12-under 60 in the third round. He lost that lead Sunday on the front nine on the Stadium Course at PGA West, but he played with the resilience of a seasoned veteran down the stretch, capped by his recovery from two errant shots on the 18th for the winning par.

"Nothing like I've ever felt," Dunlap said. "It was so cool to be out here and experience this as an amateur. Whether I had made that or missed that [last put], if you would have told me [on] Wednesday night I would have a putt to win this golf tournament, I wouldn't believe you."

After a day of back-and-forth competition, Dunlap and Sam Burns were tied for the lead when Burns put his tee shot in the water and double-bogeyed the 17th. Dunlap thought he had a two-stroke lead when he stepped up to the 18th, because and his caddie didn't check the leaderboard or see Bezuidenhout's birdie moments earlier.

Dunlap's tee shot then landed high in the rough, and his second shot might have hit a spectator before it took a fortunate roll from the rough into a grassy drainage area off the green.

Tournament scoring record

Dunlap got inside six feet with his third shot, and he celebrated the par putt for the title with hugs from his parents, his girlfriend and his college coach, Jay Seawell, who all flew cross-country over the weekend to watch in person.

He ended up with a 70 — his worst round of the week by far — to finish at 29-under 259 and break the tournament scoring record as a 72-hole event. He's also the youngest winner in the event's history, and he became the youngest amateur to win on the tour since 1910.

Adam Hadwin of Abbotsford, B.C., finished tied for sixth, four shots behind Dunlap.

Dunlap and Tiger Woods are the only players to win both the U.S. Amateur and the U.S. Junior Amateur. While Dunlap got the celebration Sunday for one of the most impressive performances in recent golf history, he doesn't get the $1.5 million US first-place prize, which goes to Bezuidenhout after the South African's final-round 65.

Dunlap also doesn't get the 500 FedEx Cup points — but his rewards are still ample. If he stays at Alabama he gets in the Masters, U.S. Open and British Open as the U.S. Amateur champion. If he turns pro and joins the PGA Tour, he still gets in the Masters and U.S. Open, along with the remaining seven $20 million signature events on tour.

"It's amazing," Bezuidenhout said about Dunlap's achievement. "Actually, I heard his name last year when he won the U.S. Amateur. He's obviously a hell of a player, and congrats to him. Hopefully, he can be out on the PGA Tour soon, and we all can get to play with him."

Dunlap and his parents both said they hadn't immediately decided what he'll do next — but his meteoric career hit yet another height in the Coachella Valley.

"I have no idea, I really don't," Dunlap said about his future. "It's really cool to have that opportunity in the first place. Starting the week, if you would have said, `Hey, in five days you're going to have a PGA Tour card, or an opportunity for two years,' I would have looked at you sideways. But that's something that it doesn't just affect me. It affects a lot of people — Coach back there, and my teammates — and it's a conversation I need to have with a lot of people before I make that decision."

Dunlap was already planning to play at Torrey Pines next week on a sponsor exemption, but he acknowledged he also brought homework to California.

Dunlap needed toughness to overcome his nerves in his final round. His three-shot lead vanished all at once on the seventh when he put his tee shot into the water and double-bogeyed while Burns birdied it.

Dunlap quickly reclaimed the lead, lost it again and battled Burns down the stretch, pulling even with a birdie on the 16th.

And then Burns was the one who flinched, completely missing the famed island green on the 17th and hitting the water.

"I didn't want to win by him hitting in the water," Dunlap said. "I wanted to win by making four birdies the last four holes. But unfortunately, that's golf. I've done it numerous times."

Justin Thomas, Xander Schauffele and Kevin Yu tied for third at 27 under. Burns led the event after two rounds with a career-low 61, and he was tied with two holes to play Sunday before hitting into the water on each of his final two holes and carding back-to-back double bogeys, finishing in a tie for sixth.

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