ORLANDO — It can be a very lonely feeling to be a rookie on the PGA Tour. Nick Dunlap, barely more than a month into his professional career, didn’t really mind the relative isolation in his debut at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Not that he had that much of a choice.

In what can only be described as one of the oddest starts in tour history, Dunlap was in the first group off at 7:45 a.m. EST Thursday at Bay Hill. He was a part of a group only in the most general terms, accompanied by his caddie Hunter Hamrick and a few volunteers who handle scoring chores. He did not have a playing partner.

A player competing as a single is not unusual, but it occurs almost exclusively on the weekend if an odd number of golfers make the cut or there is a withdrawal just before or during a round when players are paired in twosomes. But to compete as a single to begin a tournament? Weird.

“I was playing foursomes in college, and it’s a lot better playing as a single than as a foursome,” said Dunlap, 20, who is not far removed from his college career after turning pro in late January following his stunning win in the American Express as an amateur. “But no, I mean it was fine. He [Hamrick] had to deal with me all day, but outside of that, it was all good.”

With birdies on his final two holes, which are among the toughest on the Champion Course at Bay Hill, Dunlap recovered from an early triple bogey at the third to post even-par 72. He played his outward nine in a fat, frustrating 40 but was able to steady himself and come home in 32, mainly because he had the time to do so. Dunlap finished in just under four hours and was more than three holes ahead of the twosome behind him, C.T. Pan and Stephen Jaeger.

“As weird as that is to say, I could kind of take as much time as I wanted,” said Dunlap, who probably already knows that tour guys almost always take as much time as they want. “I think when you’re playing well, it’s really beneficial because you can kind of get your groove, then you can keep going, but it was a little bit more difficult when I got off to a tough start. You actually have to slow yourself down. I think from that standpoint, Hunter did a great job of slowing me down and got into a little bit of rhythm after that.”

Dunlap, the reigning U.S. Amateur champion who left the University of Alabama to accept his two-year tour exemption, was the designated rabbit not because he is a rookie playing in his fourth event as a pro, but because of his qualification category into the $20 million signature event. As Ken Tackett, the tournament’s chief referee explained, someone had to be chosen in a field of 69 players and a one-tee start.


Nick Dunlap reacts after winning the American Express in January.

Sean M. Haffey

It would have been 70 players had Tony Finau elected to play. There are no alternates in signature events, the exception being the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, which has a guaranteed field of 80. The rest of the PGA Tour membership is in the opposite field event this week in Puerto Rico.

“We made a decision that would make some sense and that would reflect a process as opposed to just picking a random player,” Tackett said. “Nick was the only one in his category [as a tournament winner], and we went to him and explained it, and he was fine with it.”

There are other tournament winners in the field, but they also qualified in other categories. Dunlap is the only winner who would otherwise not be in the field.

As to whether Dunlap had the option of taking along a marker to play alongside, Tackett said the tour usually doesn’t use markers, though many times they are invited to play in the majors, most regularly at the Masters. The competitor can decline the proposed companion. In this case, the tour was willing to make an exception, though Dunlap opted to go alone because the marker would have been an amateur.

“It’s hard enough for us out here, and I felt an amateur who might be struggling … I just wanted to be able to go at my own pace,” the Alabama native said.

Colby Shamblin, an Orlando resident and longtime tournament volunteer, served as the ShotLink scorer, and he was charged with keeping Dunlap’s card, which actually required him to accompany Dunlap in the scoring trailer after the round and sign the card.

A strange coincidence to the entire affair is the fact that Dunlap played with a marker earlier this year. It happened during his record-tying third-round 60 at La Quinta Country Club, a performance that tied Patrick Cantlay for the lowest score by an amateur in a PGA Tour event and propelled him to victory. His professional playing partner, Wilson Furr, fell ill that day, and a replacement, a club pro at La Quinta, was drafted to team with Furr’s amateur partner in the foursome.

Apparently, that foursome didn’t hurt Dunlap.

On Friday, he again will play as a single. He will not have the option of a marker this time, Tackett said, having established that he’d rather go without. The difference is that Dunlap begins his second round at 10:40 a.m., following behind rookie Sami Valimaki and sponsor exemption Adam Scott. He wasn’t at all concerned about pace of play.

“I’ll just stay in my own little world,” he said with a grin.

This article was originally published on golfdigest.com