Tour Confidential: Nick Dunlap’s historic win, Brandel’s tryout, Jackie Burke Jr.’s legacy
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Check in every week for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors as they break down the hottest topics in the sport, and join the conversation by tweeting us at @golf_com. This week we discuss Nick Dunlap’s historic win as an amateur, Lydia Ko and Rory McIlroy’s bounce backs, Brandel Chamblee’s tryout and more.
1. Nick Dunlap, a 20-year-old amateur making his fourth career PGA Tour start, made history at the American Express. He shot 60 on Saturday (tying the lowest round by an amateur in PGA Tour history) and then closed with a 70 on Sunday to win by one and become the first amateur to win on Tour since Phil Mickelson in 1991. How in the world did he do it?
James Colgan, news and features editor (@jamescolgan26): He did it by being — by a relatively wide margin — the best player in the field this week. All weekend long he displayed the mix of shotmaking skill and ice-cold putting that have turned golfers into very wealthy golfers for as long as time. And, considering his name now sits alongside those like Mickelson and Woods, I think it’s fair to suggest Dunlap could be a very wealthy golfer very soon.
Josh Sens, senior writer (@joshsens): So much comes down to the mental game. Dunlap said he thought of the pressure as a privilege. That’s easy to say. But he played like he believed it.
Alan Bastable, executive editor (@alan_bastable): It was another reminder that today’s top college players are unafraid to embrace big moments at the pro level. I was so impressed not only by Dunlap’s game but also by his maturity. In his post-round pressers, he sounded like he’d been there before. And as Josh said, he oozed self-belief. As Dunlap himself said Sunday evening, “I felt the script today was already written.” Pretty cool. One thing that really surprised me, though: Dunlap’s admission that he thought he had a two-shot lead as he played the 72nd hole. How he could have been misinformed on such critical information felt like a strategic gaffe that could have come back to bite him.
2. Dunlap had an impressive resume prior to this week, as just last summer he became the second golfer ever (joining Tiger Woods) to win both the U.S. Amateur and U.S. Junior Am. Now, with this win under his belt, is he the frontrunner to be the game’s next star?
Colgan: Yep. There’s been an awesome youth movement in the pro game over the last several years, but no one has entered the sport with more momentum than Dunlap. Hovland, Wolff, Morikawa, and Scheffler all entered with huge hype, but nobody’s quite done anything like this. We’re witnessing something seriously rare.
Sens: Agreed. It’s a fickle game and nothing is guaranteed. But as spectacular as this was, there was also nothing fluky about it. No reason to think there won’t be more if the same to come.
Bastable: Lol, he’s already a PGA Tour winner — who you gonna put ahead of him?! Speaking of Tiger, I loved what Dunlap said about how chasing Tiger’s records will motivate him: “I know that’s an extremely high bar, and I don’t know if that comes off really cocky or not, but for me that’s something.” Nobody’s expecting Dunlap to put up Woodsian numbers but you have to appreciate him setting the bar high for himself. Going to be very fun to track his development.
3. Who had the other most impressive, or important, finish on Sunday: Rory McIlroy, who won the Dubai Desert Classic after letting a different tournament title slip through the cracks a week earlier? Lydia Ko, who was winless on the LPGA Tour last year but won the season-opener on Sunday? Or Justin Thomas, who finished T3 at the AmEx, after he had just two top 5s all of last season?
Colgan: Rory! Who quickly flipped the narrative after last week’s struggles in Dubai into a conversation about how he’s had two top-2 finishes in two starts this year. But to your point, seeing both JT and Rory card some strong early-season finishes fuels some major optimism for the year ahead. I’m giddy.
Sens: Call me biased, as Ko is my favorite golfer on any tour. But she had such a perplexingly poor 2023, coupled with caddie and swing coach changes. I’d argue that her return to the winner’s circle is more striking than either Rory or JT’s play — Rory has long been hot and cold from one event to the next. And Thomas was showing signs of revival before this week.
Bastable: Yeah, a January win in the Middle East for Rory doesn’t exactly get my motor running. I’m with Sens. Ko is a huge asset for the women’s game, both on and off the course (she’s elite in the press room), so her return to form is a big deal for the LPGA. Here’s hoping this week portends more success to come in ‘24.
4. NBC’s lead analyst “tryout” continued at the American Express, this time with Brandel Chamblee getting his spot in the chair. What did you think of Brandel in that role? And was he different — for better or for worse — than the studio-analyst version golf fans are used to?
Colgan: I expanded on this further in the Hot Mic newsletter, but I was seriously impressed with Brandel’s work. Made me feel smarter for watching, and rose to the moment following Dunlap’s win. I think he should be a serious consideration for the lead analyst chair.
Sens: Chamblee is better known for deep-dive pre and post-round analyses. But he was especially good at being Johnny-on-the-spot this week. His commentary was clear, concise and insightful throughout. You could say he benefited from being handed a great story. But, as they say of clutch golfers, he also met the moment. I say hire the man for the hot-seat role.
Bastable: Full disclosure: I was able to watch only on Sunday afternoon, but during that stretch Chamblee sounded prepared and at ease. I didn’t hear any vintage Chamblee analysis or candor that might make for Monday-morning blog-post fodder, but no doubt those nuggets would come if he gets tapped for the job.
5. Jack Burke Jr., the winner of the 1956 Masters and PGA Championship, died on Jan. 19, 2024, 10 days before his 101st birthday. Burke was a beloved figure in the game and was the sport’s oldest-living major champ. In your mind, what’s his legacy?
Colgan: Jack grasped that golfers were advocates for their sport long before anyone in pro golf spoke of the word “marketing.” He was a legend for what he did on the course, but he was visionary for what he did off of it. He set a powerful example of his peers to follow (even today).
Sens: I think he’ll rightly be remembered as a kind of folksy Yoda of the game. A former star who became a mentor. In his prime, he played it at the highest level, and he remained a purist — going so far as to build a famous all-golf-all-the-time club of his own that in turn became a landmark. Top players sought him out for advice, tracking him down at Champions to absorb his wisdom. To torture the Yoda comparison, Burke turned the Champions Club into the golf-world’s planet Degobah.
Bastable: There are straight shooters, and then there was Jackie Burke, who was not the kind to hold anything back, no matter his audience. That kind of forthrightness is rare in golf, and Burke had it in spades. A few years back, he accepted an award at a Golf Writers Association of America annual dinner and spoke with great wisdom about what it takes to win a Masters, namely that you can’t play scared. “You can’t fear it or think you’re going to be disgraced if you don’t win the Masters,” he said. “If you go out to try to win the Masters, that’s some pretty poor thinking.”
6. Bernhard Langer announced that this year’s Masters — his 41st overall — will be his last. The 1985 and 1993 Masters champ is 66 and missed the cut that last three years. Still, he’s been one of the most competitive past winners playing past their prime in the tournament’s history. Are you surprised he’s calling it quits at Augusta?
Colgan: Yes, if only because I can’t imagine any world in which I’d turn down a yearly tee time at Augusta National. I’ll miss Bernhard, who is one of the steadiest players I’ve ever witnessed, besting, like, 75 players each year on Masters Thursday.
Sens: It doesn’t surprise me so much as it makes me wistful. All things must pass. But it’s too bad that some of them seem to pass so quickly. Doesn’t feel so long ago that I was watching Langer out there in his prime. But it makes sense that he’s calling it quits. Beating 75 players is cool. But like so many of the greats, Langer doesn’t want to be out there if he doesn’t think he can win.
Bastable: I would have loved to see him make a Masters start at 70. But it’s not to be. The greatest champions know when it’s time.