‘Can you spell N-I-L?’: Amateur on brink of unthinkable PGA Tour win

nick dunlap hits driver at American Express in white shirt

Nick Dunlap tied the lowest amateur score in PGA Tour history on Saturday at the American Express.

getty Images/Orlando Ramirez

It was a Saturday afternoon of unusual sights for Nick Dunlap at the American Express.

First came the birdie putt on 18, clinching a 12-under 60 for the day. He’d poured it in the middle of the middle — securing the first unusual sight of the afternoon: a video board showing his name atop the leaderboard at the Amex, the first 54-hole lead of his PGA Tour career. He shook hands with his playing partners and headed off the green at PGA West, where he was greeted with his second strange visual: a gaggle of fans calling out his name, and wanting … his autograph?

Dunlap smiled as he stopped off at the crowd in the middle of a “Roll Tide Roll!” chant, and smiled again when one of them said the words on the minds of a not-insignificant chunk of the golf audience.

“Hey Nick, can you spell N-I-L?”

It was that kind of afternoon for Dunlap, who is quickly becoming one of the most prized youngsters to enter the pro golf world in some time. On Saturday, he showed why, tying the lowest round for an amateur on the PGA Tour since at least 1983, matching Patrick Cantlay’s record from the 2011 Travelers Championship.

Dunlap, who is still just 20 years old, shot a 12-under 60 on Saturday afternoon that featured 10 birdies, no bogeys and an eagle. He enters Sunday at the Amex with a three-stroke lead and a legitimate chance to become the first amateur winner on the PGA Tour since Phil Mickelson in 1991. Yes, he’s only a sophomore at the University of Alabama, but it seems the golf world is officially on notice.

“Nick Dunlap has a real shot this weekend to be the next amateur to win a Tour event,” Mickelson tweeted on Saturday. “This generation of Aberg, Surratt, Sargent, Dunlap, and M.W. Lee are the youngest and most talented group of players I’ve seen and will be a force for decades.”

“Told myself after the week I wanted to shoot 30 under this weekend,” fellow Tide golfer Justin Thomas said with a snide grin. “Didn’t think I was gonna have to deal with a freaking college kid shooting 60 today.”

The truth is that Dunlap is far from a total stranger to this sort of hype. Sharp golf fans will remember his name from last summer, when Dunlap (then still a teenager) joined rarified air of a different ilk: becoming the first golfer since Tiger Woods — and only the second ever — to win both the U.S. Junior Amateur and U.S. Amateur.

Beyond his U.S. Amateur glory, Dunlap won everything as a freshman at Alabama — including the Northeast and North and South Amateurs, the Walker Cup, and All-American honors. He’s played in the U.S. Open twice, most recently qualifying in 2023 by shooting an 8-under 136 in pro-heavy Columbus final qualifying, then outlasting a three-for-two playoff. He says those U.S. Open experiences (two starts, zero cuts made) left a lot to be desired — and that’s a good thing. As U.S. Am winner, he is exempt into all four majors in 2024, including the Masters.

“I’ve played four, I guess, PGA Tour-sanctioned events, counting the two U.S. Opens,” he said sheepishly Saturday. “I think those are different, they’re kind of their own animal. But, no, I’m still trying to learn as much as I can.”

There is a lot to pick up on ahead of Sunday afternoon, when Dunlap will be paired with Sam Burns in his first-ever PGA Tour final pairing. A victory would vault him into legendary status in pro golf before ever turning pro — a feat owed only a select few players who have made the leap in the last several decades, Woods and Mickelson among them.

“I think it’s easy to get ahead of yourself,” he said Saturday. “Tomorrow is 18 holes. I’ve never been in this position before, and I’m just going to go out there and try to do as best as I can.”

That is true, but it’s also true that a victory could change the calculus of his professional life. Dunlap would receive an exemption into each of the PGA Tour’s signature events with a victory on Sunday at the Amex, and would have full PGA Tour status through 2026 if he chose to accept it. The NIL money is surely good — good enough for Dunlap to joke that he and his girlfriend were headed to Ruth’s Chris steakhouse for dinner on Saturday evening — but the prestige offered by PGA Tour is standard deviations more than any NIL fund.

“Like I said earlier, tomorrow is just 18 holes,” he said when asked directly about the professional implications of a victory. “I’m just going to try to go out there and learn as much as I can, and try to stack good golf shots on top of good golf shots.”

In short, it could be a life-changing Sunday at the American Express for 20-year-old Nick Dunlap. But if Saturday was any indication, it won’t be unusual for much longer.

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