Neal Shipley: Golf’s New Folk Hero Arrives
With a gritty win and one unforgettable shot, the likable underdog stormed into the championship match at the U.S. Amateur
By Alan Shipnuck
August 19, 2023
DENVER—Saturday afternoon, on the back nine at Cherry Hills Country Club, the man and the moment collided. Nick Dunlap, a buttoned-down Tour pro in waiting, was well on his way to winning his semifinal match over Parker Bell in clinical, mostly emotionless fashion. The golf course tilted in the direction of the other match, between hot-blood John Marshall Butler and Neal Shipley, who minute by minute was becoming golf’s newest folk hero.
Shipley has a quick wit, a big personality, a glorious beer belly and a luscious mane of hair that touches his shoulders. He is the fun-loving, big-hitting underdog every golf gallery is dying to embrace, but Butler’s stellar play muted the cheers. After Shipley bogeyed the 10th hole to go 3 down, he spent the walk to the next tee in the ear of his caddie, Carter Pitcairn, a boyhood friend with whom he spent his summers caddying at august Oakmont Country Club. “He got fired up,” says Pitcairn, who took over the bag on Saturday after Shipley’s caddie for the earlier rounds, his Ohio State assistant coach Jimmy Beck, had to return home for his wife’s baby shower. “He told me, ‘I’m ready for this. I’ve practiced too hard for this. I’m not going down without a fight—let’s go get this done.’”
Thus began a comeback that sent roars reverberating across the Rocky Mountains, or so it seemed. On the 640-yard par-5 11th, Shipley channeled the brio of his fellow Pennsylvanian Arnold Palmer. (Both can claim the Western Penn Open and Western Penn Junior.) After driving into a bunker, Shipley played a daring 5-iron just short of the green that led to a birdie and his first winning hole since the 4th. Then Shipley stuffed his tee shot on the par-3 12th to win that one too. One down. The Cherry Hills galleries have been lively all week but now, suddenly, the fans were at full throat. “Yeah, it seems like the crowd likes me, I guess,” Shipley said afterward, blushing a little. “Just trying to use that energy when you hit good golf shots, get pumped up, get good vibes going. I think that’s super, super important.”
On the 14th hole, with Butler facing a 15-foot par putt, it looked like Shipley would square the match as his bending birdie putt tracked toward glory. He was halfway through a lusty fist-pump when the ball curled out of the hole. Doh! Butler is an emotional player, and after he buried his putt to steal a halve he loosed a guttural scream and stared down Shipley. The intensity was awesome, and Shipley had the good sense to laugh at his ill-fated celebration, saying, “We had a good banter the entire time. [I said] I deserved that one after that, and he’s like, ‘Yeah, you did.’”
Butler didn’t know it, but that was his last hurrah. Carried along by the crowd, Shipley won the 15th hole and then the 16th with pars, forging his first lead. After finding a fairway bunker on the par-5 17th, Butler was five paces off the green, laying three and facing a delicate pitch. Shipley laid up to 92 yards with his second shot and then with a 54-degree wedge finessed his approach 30 feet beyond a dangerous pin. The ball zipped backward as if flicked by Arnie’s ghost. As it trickled toward the hole, the crowd let out a roar that slowly built to a crescendo. Shipley’s ball finally expired less than a foot from the hole. Butler missed his birdie chip. Game over.
Shipley was engulfed by fans and he high-five’d them all the way to the green, pumping his fist and throwing back his head in delight. This year in golf has been sullied by acrimony and greed, but Shipley’s unfettered joy resonated because it was so pure. No matter what happens during Sunday’s 36-hole championship match, his shot and ensuing celebration will be the defining moment of this feel-good tournament, and, indeed, remembered as one of the best moments of this golf season.
Butler held his head high in defeat, saying, “Yeah, I’ve failed so many times at this game, and it’s taught me so much, and it’s brought me a lot of joy, and it’s brought me a lot of pain… You know, to me, this doesn’t really make a difference. It doesn’t affect my future. I still believe I’ll be the No. 1 player in the world. I still believe I’ll be competing on the PGA Tour, and I still believe that I’ll be winning majors. Yeah, right now it kind of stings, but it doesn’t change anything.”
You gotta love the kid’s spirit. Dunlap (above) radiates the same heat. The 2021 U.S. Junior champ has the chance to join Tiger Woods as the second player to win both the Junior and U.S. Amateur. Dunlap doesn’t have a weakness in his game, but his most impressive attribute is his Woodsian ability to rise to the moment; Dunlap is now an astonishing 29-2 in match play dating to the 2021 AJGA Polo Golf Junior Classic. Asked his secret, he says, “Just a belief in myself. I’m a fighter. I don’t give up, no matter what the situation is, no matter what’s thrown at me. I see it as a challenge.”
He is certainly the favorite in the championship match, but Shipley has an x-factor too. A lot of players can produce birdies. In the semifinals of the U.S. Amateur, Shipley made magic.
In 1994, Alan wrote his first cover story for Sports Illustrated as a 21 year-old intern, and in the ensuing quarter-century he typed two dozen more. He is the author of eight books, including best-sellers Bud, Sweat & Tees; The Swinger (with Michael Bamberger); and Phil. Shipnuck has won 13 first-place awards in the annual Golf Writers Association of America writing contest, breaking the record of Dan Jenkins, a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame. Alan lives in Carmel, Cal.