The Dunlap dilemma

Mark McGowan
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Nick Dunlap (Photo by Orlando Ramirez/Getty Images)

Mark McGowan

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The American Express Championship is usually one of those easy miss weeks on the PGA Tour. Held over three courses in Palm Springs, the Pro-Am format means that it’s always a total birdie fest, and while that didn’t change this year – 29-under won – the tournament winner made Sunday’s final round must-see TV.

Nick Dunlap is not your run-of-the-mill amateur, even though he’s only 20 years old. He’s the reigning US Amateur champion, the third-ranked player in the amateur golf rankings, and barring something drastic happening, was always going to try his hand in the professional ranks.

By winning on Sunday, becoming the first amateur to win on the PGA Tour since Phil Mickelson back in 1991, he now has a dilemma; return to the University of Alabama and finish out the semester (and possibly his remaining two years), or turn pro immediately. Asked about it after his victory, naturally, he opted to keep his powder dry, but those questions will come thick and fast over the coming days and the temptation to strike while the iron is hot will be tough to resist.

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And strike he should. Even for somebody with Dunlap’s apparent skillset, golf can be fickle and the margins at the elite levels are miniscule. With the profile he’s already amassed, he’s guaranteed to be hot property when he does turn pro, even if it’s a couple of years down the line and he does little to elevate himself above his peers in the meantime, but his stock is unlikely to be any higher then than it is now.

By putting pen to paper on professional contracts tomorrow, despite seeing second-placed Christian Bezuidenout collect the $1.5 million cheque that Dunlap had rightfully earned, he would instantly become a multi-millionaire, with job security for almost three years and with guaranteed exemptions into most of the biggest tournaments in 2024.

Most US and Amateur Championship winners have to contend with the knowledge that though they receive invitations to Augusta National in April, the caveat is that they must remain amateur in order to tee it up. The US Open extend their invitation to the US Amateur winner regardless of amateur status, but you have to be a professional in order to play in the PGA Championship.

Turning pro would also see him exempt into the PGA Tour’s Signature Events for 2024, several of which are no-cut, guaranteed paydays, with world ranking and FedEx Cup points doled out just for turning up.

So, does he remain amateur and play in the NCAA tournaments, plus the Masters, the US Open, the Open Championship, The Players Championship, plus whatever random regular PGA Tour events he chooses to play, collecting zero prizemoney regardless of where he finishes? Or does he turn pro, play at Pebble Beach in a fortnight’s time, at Riviera two weeks after that, and head to Sawgrass, Augusta National, Valhalla, Pinehurst and, most likely, Royal Troon, knowing that on any of these weeks, should he somehow double-down on the unthinkable and win, he’ll be adding another $3 million to the likely eight-figure sum already resting in his bank account.

There’s no decision to be made really. If we don’t see him at Pebble Beach then it’ll be an even bigger shock than him outgunning Sam Burns and Justin Thomas down the stretch at Palm Springs.

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