Column: Amateur Nick Dunlap arrived ahead of schedule. The richest path is forward

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Imagine playing on the PGA Tour as the U.S. Amateur champion and beating a pair of current Ryder Cup players in the final group, watching the runner-up collect the $1.5 million prize money and then trying to decide the next step.

Nick Dunlap was spot on when he called it a “life-changing last 24 hours.”

His one-shot victory in The American Express — with a double bogey on the front nine and a champion’s touch with the putter over the last five holes — made him only the third amateur in the last 68 years to win on the PGA Tour.

Dunlap dreamed of a moment like this, just maybe not this soon. And now the 20-year-old sophomore at Alabama has to choose whether to stay in college or join the PGA Tour and compete for twice as much as he could have won on Sunday.

The previous two U.S. Amateur champions who won on the PGA Tour as amateurs had it easier.

Phil Mickelson was an Arizona State junior when he won the 1991 Tucson Open, overcoming a triple bogey on the 14th hole to win with an 8-foot birdie at the last hole. First place was worth $180,000, but Lefty was thinking long term.

“Now I can get my degree and I don’t have to go to Q-school,” he said that day. The richest purse on the PGA Tour in 1991 was $2 million at the Tour Championship.

Scott Verplank won the 1985 Western Open at tough Butler National in Chicago, beating Jim Thorpe in a playoff. The $90,000 winner’s check went to Thorpe, who said he would rather have the trophy because “we all want to win out here.”

“The money, I’ll lose that at the track or Uncle Sam will get it,” Thorpe said. In a wild coincidence, 15 years later Thorpe was sentenced to a year in prison for not paying taxes.

Verplank was having too much fun at Oklahoma State and wanted the one trophy missing from his sterling amateur career — an NCAA individual title, which he won nine months later. He played the Tournament of Champions coming out of his winter break and tied for fourth.

“If what I did then was today, you turn pro,” Verplank said Sunday evening. He had just watched Dunlap match birdies with Sam Burns on the 14th, catch him with a 10-foot birdie on the 16th and then pull ahead when Burns hit his tee shot into the water on the par-3 17th.

Elite players are motivated by winning. Golfers turn pro to earn money.

Dunlap is staring at the potential of a lot of money.

The PGA Tour exemption for winning is through 2026 no matter when he decides to join. If he does that now, he gets in seven signature events worth $20 million, along with The Players Championship ($25 million purse). Four of those $20 million events do not have a cut.

Dunlap got a taste of tour life when he shot 60 in the third round to take the lead and was asked about plans for the rest of the day. His girlfriend was coming to town. And he had laundry to do. He already had an exemption this week for Torrey Pines before withdrawing.

“I’m still trying to figure out this whole two-weeks-on-the-road laundry thing,” he said.

During his Sunday news conference, he looked at his coach at Alabama, who flew in to watch the final round. He considered his teammates, who watched the winning putt from a team van returning from a practice session on the Gulf Coast of Alabama and reacted as if the Tide had just beaten Georgia for the SEC title.

“It’s a conversation I need to have with a lot of people before I make that decision,” Dunlap said, showing maturity inside and outside the ropes.

Alabama is coming up on 10 years since its last NCAA golf title. The format is match play, which does not always favor the best team. Dunlap already had a summer filled with prestigious trophies — Northeast Amateur at Wannamoisett, North & South Amateur at Pinehurst, Walker Cup at St. Andrews, capped off by a World Amateur Team title.

He gets in three majors whatever his decision — the Masters and U.S. Open, and then the PGA Championship as a pro or the British Open if he stays amateur.

And while his PGA Tour victory was rare for a college kid, the pipeline is filled with great talent. Mickelson said on X this generation — mentioning names like Ludvig Aberg, Gordon Sargent and Dunlap — represents “the youngest and most talented group of players I’ve seen and will be a force for decades.”

There will be others.

With so much attention on Dunlap, it’s easy to forget Aberg. The Swede left Texas Tech as the top college player at the end of May and four months later had won on the European tour, on the PGA Tour and at the Ryder Cup. Remember him?

An argument can be made for Dunlap to strike now, though he would appear to have the tools built for the long run. He said winning on the PGA Tour “was everything I dreamed of,” and it’s hard to find a better script than what he wrote.

Aberg went back for his senior year because he felt he wasn’t ready, and because of the PGA Tour University ranking that worked in his favor. Dunlap is equipped with evidence his game is ready for the big leagues, starting with that PGA Tour trophy.

Yes, it was a life-changing 24 hours. Now he gets to decide if it’s a career-changer, too.

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AP golf: https://apnews.com/hub/golf

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