At the American Express tournament at PGA West some 10 days ago, 20-year-old Nick Dunlap from Alabama, the reigning US Amateur champion, became the first amateur golfer to win on the PGA Tour for 33 years. His immediate predecessor had been Phil Mickelson, in Tucson in 1991. Before him it had been Scott Verplank (1985). Then one has to go back to Doug Sanders in 1956. (It has happened just three times ever in Europe, most recently Shane Lowry at the Irish Open in 2009.)
That stat means that neither Jack Nicklaus nor Tiger Woods won on the PGA Tour as an amateur. In his book, The Greatest Game of All, Nicklaus recalled agonising in November 1961 over whether to turn pro or carry on selling insurance. “I still thought of [Bobby] Jones as the greatest golfer who ever lived. My ambition, as it had been since I had first broken 80, was to see how close I could come to duplicating Jones’s superlative record. [Jones won 13 major titles, including the original and inimitable Grand Slam in 1930.] If I turned pro, that would all be finished.” He turned pro. His first win as a professional was the 1962 US Open.
Jones won that particular championship four times between 1923 and 1930, during a period when such heroics by non-professionals were not unusual. There was Francis Ouimet (1913), Jerome Travers (1915), Chick Evans (1916) and Johnny Goodman (1933). He was the last amateur to win a major championship for which professionals were also eligible, although in 1956 Ken Venturi should have won the Masters: he shot 80 in the final round and only lost by a shot.
When Mickelson won in Tucson, he seemed to have blown his chances when he made a triple-bogey on the 14th. Not a bit of it! Two birdies got him home by a shot. Similarly, an early double-bogey seemed it might derail Dunlap’s endeavours in the desert, but he kept on going and won by a stroke from Christiaan Bezuidenhout (who therefore collected the winner’s cheque). Amid those names from over a century ago to which I previously alluded, at the age of 20 years and 29 days, Dunlap bettered Chick Evans’s mark from 1910 of being the youngest amateur to win on the Tour. He is also the second-youngest winner since the Second World War. Jordan Spieth won aged 19.
Dunlap has always been a prodigy. He shot a round of 59 when he was just 12. It’s no shock that Woods is the guy he would like to try to emulate. “I know that’s an extremely high bar,” he said, “and I don’t know if that comes across as really cocky or not, but I consider him the greatest ever.” But there was also an echo of the dilemma Nicklaus considered that he had in 1961. Asked if he was going to turn pro, Dunlap replied: “Oh boy, I have no idea. I really don’t. It’s really cool to have that opportunity.”
That was Sunday. By Thursday he had turned pro. Well before we hear the first cuckoo of spring, he will doubtless have been linked with LIV.
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