W&G columnist Patrick Brennan discusses the similarities between the 20-year-old college golfers Nick Dunlap and Rose Zhang and how Dunlap could learn from Zhang as he looks to turn pro

Whether you are a casual golfer, an aspiring pro or in this case on the Alabama men’s golf team, on Sunday night you were rooting for amateur Nick Dunlap at The American Express.

Dunlap shot a twelve under par 60 on Saturday to catapult him into the lead, creating headlines about potentially becoming the first amateur to win a PGA tour event since Phil Mickelson in 1991.

The Alabama Collegiate star began the day with a three-shot lead at 27 under par, with predictions that he would have to go low possibly into the 30s, in order to hold off his competition. He had ice in his veins despite charges from Sam Burns, Justin Thomas, Christiaan Bezuidenhout, and Kevin Yu.

Ultimately the field fell away leaving Dunlap a par on the 72nd to clinch his first title. ‘Inside left’ was the caddy call, the read was true, the five-footer dropping to confirm the 20-year-old is forever etched in PGA Tour history.

Now, it doesn't take a psychic to know that Dunlap will be inundated with sponsorship deals, exemptions and invites (potentially LIV offers) having catapulted himself to overnight stardom. The decision now is whether he continues his studies, prolonging his amateur career, or ultimately turns professional in the near future.

What we know…

  • Despite winning the tournament, Dunlap doesn’t see a cent of the prize money due to his amateur status. The pay-outs follow as if he weren’t there, so Christiaan Bezuidenhout scoops $1.5m after his runner up finish thanks to a Sunday 65.
  • Dunlap now has a two-year exemption on the PGA Tour through to 2026.
  • As the current U.S. Amateur champion, he is already exempt from the Masters.
  • If he turns pro, he will be in all of the remaining seven signature events this season, which have no cuts and $20 million prize purses.
  • Turning pro means cutting his college years down or leaving completely, and misses the chance to win a ring with his teammates before embarking upon his individual career.
  • His aspiration to be the World Number one amateur is not fulfilled, he’s currently sits at number three.
  • If he turns pro but remains at college then he has to manage that workload alongside his pro career, potentially leading to burnout.

Comparison to Rose Zhang

Someone who may be able to sympathise a little with this situation is Stanford alumni and LPGA star Rose Zhang. The American grabbed attention after winning the U.S. Women’s Amateur in 2020 (aged 17) and then U.S. Girls Junior the following year. Zhang didn’t stop there, topping the rankings for women’s amateur golf for three consecutive years from 2020, and winning the NCAA Individual Championship by three shots in May 2022.

Like Zhang, Dunlap has already achieved all there is to in the amateur game after winning both the U.S. Amateur and U.S. Junior Amateur titles.

Zhang may have taken a slightly different path by turning pro before winning on tour but she did so in style winning in her first event as a professional in June 2023. Zhang then notched top tens in three Majors, going T8-T9-T9 at the KPMG Women’s PGA, U.S. Women’s Open and Evian Championship respectively.

The difference between pro and college golf

Zhang is someone for Nick Dunlap to emulate, especially as she has turned professional while attempting to finish her Stanford degree. She alluded to the changes evident in professional golf compared to amateur golf, and was asked if she finds it hard to prioritise her duties.

“100%. That's also one of the biggest lessons I learned. I remember talking about it last year at the end of the year, about saying no. You know, I always have been a people pleaser, but not just for others but for myself, too. I think the adjustments of saying no are just such a crucial skill to learn, especially when you're going to have a lot more on your plate. It's necessary for you to be able to maximize what you can do, what you can't do. So slowly still learning.”

Zhang went on to say that her plate is often full and it becomes hard to balance school and golf.

“Right, well, this is the only event that I'm playing in January, and then going to March I'm going to start my season back up again at Palos Verdes, so it gives me a little bit of time to do a bunch of prep work in between and a lot of school. But I did finish week one and am missing some of week two, which some of my professors aren't too happy with. You know, once that's all settled we've just been doing a lot of work outside of practice, and I think it's time to really just get dialed in, grind on the golf course, too.”

Chasing a target

Nick Dunlap will be itching to turn pro to get to work on tallying his PGA Tour wins. He explained to Golfweek that he has always set his standards high, and always likes having someone to chase in his quest for more PGA Tour wins.

“For me, that’s Tiger, right. Like I probably won’t ever even be close to some of the records he set, but I always try to set myself, you know, I’m trying to chase 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, I consider him the greatest ever, and for me to try to chase that, and even to be in somewhat of a conversation with him is, like I had said, it’s a dream come true, and it’s why I do what I do.”

The way in which sophomore Nick Dunlap conducted himself after a waterball off the tee on the seventh hole that saw a three-shot swing to Sam Burns’ birdie on Sunday was mature beyond his years, and demonstrates that the college golfers of today – like Zhang and Dunlap himself - are geared up to win straight out of school.

The message from the commentary booth on NBC drove home how Justin Thomas and Sam Burns can lean into experience, but it was Burns who choked on the 71st and 72nd holes, two terrible swings that dropped him out of contention (and out of the top five altogether).

What's next for Nick Dunlap?

It’s interesting to think what would happen if Dunlap were to reach out to Zhang and hash out the pros and cons of taking the next step in making golf his vocation. Some say Dunlap should turn pro immediately and take advantage of this performance by making himself indispensable to the PGA Tour in 2024. Dunlap is represented by GSE who also brokered a deal for Jason Kokrak to join LIV, and represent Bryson DeChambeau. Agents will be rubbing their hands.

Dunlap could also take his time to enjoy his win and finish college while taking advantage of his two-year PGA Tour exemption wherever possible. He gave us a brilliant Sunday and his composure under pressure shows signs of further wins to come, amateur and professional!

Patrick Brennan

Meet Patrick Brennan

Patrick is originally from the Lake District, UK but moved to British Columbia, Canada after university. He writes for several media outlets, including Golficity, and has been doing so for over 18 months.

His main writing interests are professional golf tours, the Majors and any good underdog story!

He comes from a sporting family and, when not cycling or skiing, plays off a six handicap - trying and failing to keep the family bragging rights, often due to a streaky driver!

You can find him on LinkedInTwitter and Golficity.