3 keys for handling nerves on the course, according to Nick Dunlap

nick dunlap swings during the 2024 american express

Nick Dunlap won The American Express for his first PGA Tour title.

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Welcome to Play Smart, a regular GOLF.com game-improvement column that will help you play smarter, better golf.

Golf’s newest star has arrived, and his name is Nick Dunlap.

Dunlap, a sophomore at the University of Alabama, made history in the desert over the weekend as he became the first amateur to win on the PGA Tour since Phil Mickelson in 1991. In doing so, the 20-year-old locked up a Tour card (should he choose to turn pro) and earned exemptions into the Masters and the Players.

Watching Dunlap play, you’d think he was a seasoned veteran rather than an amateur playing in just his fourth pro event. And much of that came from his mettle on the course. Despite the weight of the moment on Sunday, Dunlap seldom flinched, firing a two-under 70 for a one-shot victory.

Here are three keys for handling nerves that we can learn from Dunlap’s win at The American Express.

Embrace your emotions

Golf is a game where managing your emotions is paramount. If you don’t have it between the ears, you’ve got no shot. But keeping your mental game in check is no easy feat — especially when the lights shine the brightest.

Managing the emotions of the final round was perhaps the biggest obstacle Dunlap faced in his quest for the title on Sunday. Sure, hitting shots and making putts came with their own challenges, but the moments between those shots — when the mind was free to wander — were far more consequential than any one swing.

So, how did Dunlap so expertly handle his nerves? Simply by embracing them.

“I was so nervous that I don’t know if I could have done anything,” Dunlap said. “Most nervous I’ve ever been, by far. Just tried to breathe, but also look up and enjoy it a little bit. I’ve said it numerous times today and yesterday and the past couple days, it’s a really cool spot to be in as an amateur, and just to be here and be given the opportunity to play, and I don’t ever want to forget today.”

Therein lies a great reminder for every golfer. Nerves are a part of the game, and they’ll creep up no matter what you do. So instead of trying to suppress them, go the opposite direction. Embrace them. Welcome them. Be grateful you’re in a position that stirs such emotions. It won’t make the nerves go away, but it will help you manage them.

Slow down

It’s easy to lose your rhythm when you’re nervous on the course. And when you lose your natural rhythm due to nerves, the tendency is for you to speed everything up. This is natural for most any golfer, and it’s something that we all have to navigate when playing under pressure.

Dunlap admitted that he fought similar demons during the final round. But as an experienced championship golfer, he had a strategy for keeping himself in the moment.

“Just try to breathe as much as I can, walk slow, try to do everything slow,” Dunlap said. “In that moment, everything speeds up. I would say I have had a little bit of experience leading golf tournaments, but nothing to this extent.”

When the nerves hit on the course, it’s important to understand how quickly everything can move. Instead of letting the current sweep you away, though, try to slow down.

Trust the process

It’s easy to adopt a results-based mindset in golf. Far too often, we obsess over the result of each shot, round or tournament. However, to get the most out of our games, it’s important to become more process-oriented.

It’s difficult to control the result of everything on the course. You can do everything right and still get a bad bounce or catch a gust of wind at the wrong time. All you can focus on is controlling your process and believing in your preparation.

“I think you have to have some kind of belief in yourself. I think a lot of non-belief goes from a result outcome,” Dunlap said. “Obviously, I’m going to hit bad shots. Whether that’s at the wrong time or the right time, we had no idea. You can’t think about that. I knew I was going to make bad swings and I knew I was going to make great swings today. But all I could do was do me and if somebody beat me and I gave everything I had, then hat’s off to them. I did everything I could.”

To maximize your chances of success, you have to accept that there are certain things you can’t control. Instead, it’s important to focus on your process — things you can control — and believe in yourself.

Zephyr Melton

Golf.com Editor

Zephyr Melton is an assistant editor for GOLF.com where he spends his days blogging, producing and editing. Prior to joining the team at GOLF, he attended the University of Texas followed by stops with the Texas Golf Association, Team USA, the Green Bay Packers and the PGA Tour. He assists on all things instruction and covers amateur and women’s golf. He can be reached at zephyr_melton@golf.com.