Nick Dunlap: A Star Is Born
With a dominant performance in the championship match, Dunlap made history at the U.S. Amateur and
established himself as a force in the game
By Alan Shipnuck
August 20, 2023
DENVER—Bobby Jones, who won five U.S. Amateurs and three U.S. Opens, once said, “Nobody ever wins the National Open. Somebody else just loses it.” The words often apply to the Amateur, too, as the suffocating pressure and relentlessness of a 36-hole finale often leads to a war of attrition. But this time around, at the 123rd U.S. Amateur, an audacious victory was snatched by Nick Dunlap, who used the championship match as a stage for his all-around brilliance. Dunlap, a sophomore at Alabama, drives it a mile, has a deadly iron game, soft hands around the greens and gorgeous pace on his putts. His opponent on Sunday, budding folk hero Neal Shipley, played superb golf, but Dunlap was almost perfect, birdieing 12 of the first 28 holes to surge to an insurmountable 4-up lead and ultimately prevail 4 and 3.
Even with his myriad talents, Dunlap’s most impressive attributes are metaphysical: gritty grind, disciplined course management, want, will, the propensity to hole a putt at exactly the right moment. Across a long week at Cherry Hills, Dunlap evoked the legend he now joins as the only players to win both a U.S. Amateur and a U.S. Junior: Tiger Woods. Those who know Dunlap best have long seen this coming. “I think Nick can be the best player in the world,” says his college teammate Jonathan Griz, who flew into Colorado on Sunday morning with a handful of other members of the Crimson Tide. “I mean, guys like Collin Morikawa and Viktor Hovland have used this tournament as a springboard, and Nick is not any different than them. If not better. He loves the pressure. He loves when his hands are shaking. He embraces it. I wouldn’t be surprised if Nick wins a major championship in the next five or six years. I’m serious. He’s a killer.”
Dunlap began the championship week by making a wrong-ball triple bogey and then four-putting to drop to 5 over par after seven holes in the first round of 36-hole qualifying. His caddie is longtime friend and mentor Jeff Curl, whose father, Rod, was a PGA Tour winner. Jeff jotted a note in the yardage book and showed it to his man on the 8th tee box: “This can be an AMAZING story if you let go and LET IT HAPPEN.” Dunlap responded with six birdies coming home, ground out a 72 and then with a solid second reached match play with a shot to spare.
In the marquee matchup of the first round he met Gordon Sargent, the top-ranked amateur in the world. But Dunlap was flying high after wins this summer at the Northeast Amateur and the North & South, and he thumped Sargent in a statement win. He marched into the championship match having to play the 18th hole only once, in a quarterfinal thriller when he rallied from 2 down to vanquish Jackson Koivun, the top-ranked junior in the country, with a birdie on the first extra hole.
You knew something special was brewing in the championship match when both players came out throwing haymakers. The 1st hole was halved with birdies and Dunlap made birds on 2 and 5 to go 2 up. Shipley fought back with a birdie (and big fist-pump) on the 6th hole. On number 7, Dunlap stuck his approach to 5 feet…and Shipley stuffed one inside of that. A tingle could be felt in the gallery, a recognition that an epic match was unfolding and we were lucky to bear witness. Dunlap made a bomb for birdie on 16 to go 1 up, but on the brutal 18th hole Shipley flagged his approach to square the match heading into a much-deserved lunch break. Both players shot an unofficial 66 on a U.S. Open course with a much tougher setup than this year’s national championship at Los Angeles Country Club. Shipley admitted to being a little deflated that he had played his best golf but didn’t have a lead to show for it.
Dunlap imposed his will on the match as it resumed in the afternoon, making a 40-footer on the 21st hole and hitting it stiff on the 22nd hole to go 2 up. He tenaciously refused to give his opponent a chance to cut into the deficit. “He’s tough to play because he’s never out of a hole,” said Shipley. “And just when you think you’ve got him, he’ll pour in a putt.”
On the 27th fairway, Dunlap crossed paths with Canon Claycomb, another teammate. “We high-fived and he kind of grabbed my hand and he looked me dead in the eyes and at that moment I knew the match was over,” says Claycomb. “Like, he didn’t even say anything. It was just the look. I’ve seen that look before.”
Dunlap won the next hole to go 4 up. It was all over but the shouting. When the match finally ended, the tears started flowing, especially from Curl, 44, who says of Dunlap, “I love him like a son.” In 2014, Curl was still chasing it on the mini tours and Dunlap was a 10-year-old pipsqueak who had already fallen in love with the game. (He excelled in other sports too, reaching the finals of the 2013 Punt, Pass & Kick competition.)
They were hitting balls side-by-side on the driving range when a storm blew in. Curl kept grinding and so did Dunlap, even as both got soaked. “He wasn’t gonna leave until I left,” says Curl. He was so impressed by the kid’s grit he tweeted about it in the moment, labeling Dunlap “a future PGA Tour star.” Dunlap has never stopped chasing his potential. Earlier this year he played 39 holes in a U.S. Open qualifier, ultimately surviving a three-for-two playoff. Curl caddied, as he usually does, and they got up early the next day and drove six hours home. The first thing Dunlap did was head to Alabama’s football stadium to run the stairs. Says Curl, “I was like, what the heck are you doing? He said, ‘Nobody will ever outwork me.’”
But Dunlap is hardly an automaton. The Alabama boys were all blinking back tears because he is such a generous friend and supportive teammate. “I’ve been through a lot of ups and downs the last two years,” says Griz. “And after every bad round he texts me and he calls me. He’s always checking in on me, he’s always there for me. Nick is a very, very faithful person. He’s like a brother. How can you not love and be inspired by someone like that?”
The only time Dunlap faltered on Sunday was with a couple of loose swing on the finals holes when realized he was about to fulfill one of his longstanding dreams. “Nerves,” he says. “I couldn’t feel my hands, couldn’t feel my legs, my feet couldn’t feel anything.”
It never felt so good.
The USGA is a partner to the Fire Pit Collective but has no editorial oversight.
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.