For all of the deserved accolades and hoopla surrounding Nick Dunlap’s January victory as an amateur in the PGA Tour’s American Express at PGA West, it’s hardly been a smooth road since for the 20-year-old. When the then-University of Alabama sophomore decided four days after his dramatic win—the first by an am in 33 years on tour—to leave school and take immediate membership, he called it “the easiest, hardest decision I’ve ever had to me.” He already knew why.

Dunlap, the reigning U.S. Amateur champion, was leaving the bubble of college life to journey into unknown territory as a pro. He enlisted his former assistant coach, Hunter Hamrick, to stay on his bag, and the two went on their way. The first two months have been a challenge, even beyond two missed cuts and no finish better than T-48 in a five-start stretch. Dunlap said on Saturday at the Texas Children’s Houston Open, “It’s still new and I still get lost and don’t know where to register and don’t know where dining is.”

MORE: Why Nick Dunlap is smart to leave college and turn pro

Then Dunlap has performances such as in the third round in Houston and understands that he belongs. Riding a hot putter, the rookie poured in seven birdies to shoot seven-under 63 and climb the leaderboard to be only one shot off the lead at nine under. Dunlap birdied all three of the par 5s at Memorial Park Golf Course and rolled in a 50-foot putt at the par-4 13th.

Already one of the tour’s long bombers—he’s third in the field this week in driving distance at 324.6 yards—Dunlap has produced a strong combination of play this week, ranking No. 3 in strokes gained/putting, with a 5.69-strokes advantage.

“It’s fairly open, the greens are pure and you kind of give yourself 20 feet all day, and I feel like that’s a strong part of my game,” Dunlap said of Memorial Park.


Raj Mehta

Dunlap got off to a 68-71 start in Houston and was frustrated with that. At dinner on Friday at the Cheesecake Factory, he and Hamrick went over all the ways he could do better. In an article Dunlap’s sports psychologist, Bhrett McCabe, penned for the player’s Golf Digest cover appearance in March, McCabe said “Nick’s greatest asset is his mind-set,” and it seems as if Dunlap returned to that at the restaurant.

“All I tried to do [Saturday] was play perfect with what I had,” Dunlap said. “Not necessarily like perfect golf, but getting easy ones up and down, not three-putting. You’re not going to make every putt and you’re not going to hit every wedge close, but from where I was trying to play a perfect round of golf, I feel like I did that.”

Dunlap, who would have remained in college if he had finished anywhere but first in the AmEx, continues to work on getting comfortable. He’s had some impressive mentors, including World No. 1 Scottie Scheffler, who has been a frequent practice round partner, along with Sam Burns.

His takeaways?

“Try not to be too hard on myself,” Dunlap said. “I’m quickly learning the gap between playing really good golf and average golf out here is very, very small. I think you can look at the cuts each week; there’s a cut at even par and four under’s almost in top 10, so it’s very, very small. A couple putts here, a couple up-and-downs there and you’re right where you want to be.”

He added, “I’ve got to do the little things better. … I think out here everybody thinks [tour players] hit the super hard shots well, and they do sometimes. But it’s the easy shots and the lag putts that they don’t stress about; they hit ’em to kick-in and they move on and that’s something that I’ve got to get better at.”

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It’s always more fun when it’s as easy as it was on Saturday.

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