[PHOTO: Kathryn Riley]

It is a moment that will eventually be lost to time. When Nick Dunlap’s US Amateur victory at Cherry Hills Country Club is recalled in the decades to come, the conversation will turn to him matching Tiger Woods as the only men to win both the US Junior and US Amateur. Considering there have been 123 editions of the senior edition, that is a rare and remarkable feat.

As Dunlap humbly noted after he’d beaten Neal Shipley 4&3 by making 12 birdies over 33 holes on a toasty Sunday outside Denver, “I think it’s only a third of what he’s actually done.” He is right, of course, with Woods having captured each of the two titles three times – all before the 19-year-old Dunlap was born.

There were plenty of times in Woods’ six championships that he was on the ropes, on the verge of being eliminated, and those aren’t noted much, just as Dunlap’s horrible start in this tournament and what happened to change it will be forgotten.

In this case, it shouldn’t be, given the nature of Dunlap’s turnaround and the way he played so splendidly for the next six days.

A triple-bogey. A double-bogey. Five-over par through seven holes. That’s the way Dunlap will remember how he started the tournament.

Last Monday at Colorado Golf Club, which co-hosted the two strokeplay rounds, Dunlap opened the tournament with a birdie, but on the third hole somehow managed to hit the wrong ball, and including a two-stroke penalty, he made triple-bogey.

The world’s ninth-ranked amateur from the University of Alabama then compounded the damage with a double-bogey at the fifth and a bogey at the seventh. At five-over through seven, Dunlap was in a huge crater, considering only 64 of the 312 competitors in the field reaching the matchplay portion after 36 holes.

“Whenever you get off to a rough start,” Dunlap explained in an NBC TV interview broadcast on Sunday, “the round could be over like that, in a snap. You don’t know what happened and you shoot and you’re out of the tournament.”

Lucky for him, he had one of the savviest caddies in all of amateur golf on his bag. Jeff Curl, 44, once aspired to be a professional golfer like his father, Rod, who won once on the PGA Tour. Injuries kept the younger Curl from that dream, but he got to know Dunlap as a young kid at Greystone Golf & Country Club in Birmingham, Alabama.

Curl was on Dunlap’s bag for his 2021 US Junior win, and in the early rough going in the first round at Colorado Golf Club, the looper knew what his player needed. On the page for the eighth hole in the yardage book, Curl wrote, “This can be an amazing story if you let it happen.”

Dunlap said the words shook him out of whatever funk he was in.

“For whatever reason, something clicked. I snapped out of it,” Dunlap said.

Did he ever. Dunlap birdied the next two holes and made four more in the rest of the round to shoot even-par 72. He backed that up with a 70 the next day at Cherry Hills, tied for 38th, beat world No.1 Gordon Sargent in the first round of matchplay, and won four more matches to reach the final against Shipley.

In tears as he spoke after Sunday’s triumph, Dunlap said of Curl, “Honestly, there’s no chance I’m standing here [without him]… He was a part of the US Junior, and he’s part of this. I told him one of my main goals was to make history. For him to be alongside me, it means the world, man.”

Standing near where Dunlap was celebrating with his family and teammates at Alabama, an emotional Curl said, “I didn’t quite get to where I wanted to be in golf, but to help Nick and others, there’s nothing better. It is the greatest feeling. I wouldn’t trade it for anything I’ve done, or to have gone further, in this moment.”

For much of the day, the final lived up to the anticipation of Dunlap, who’d won back-to-back big events this American summer, facing Shipley, the 132nd-ranked amateur who had three runners-up in prestigious events of his own.

Neal Shipley reacts on the third green. [Photo: Andrew Wevers]
Pittsburgher Shipley, 22, who was trying to be the first Pennsylvanian since Arnold Palmer to win the US Amateur – on the layout where Arnie captured the 1960 US Open – had become a crowd favourite, thanks to his long hair, demonstrative play and the stunning shot he hit into the 17th hole on Saturday to close out his semi-final.

Sunday’s play got off to a roaring start when both birdied the first and Dunlap tacked on birdies at holes two and five to go 2 up. But Shipley answered with a birdie at six, and in a flurry at the end of the first 18, Shipley tied it with a par at 15, Dunlap made a birdie on 16, and Shipley answered with a short-range birdie at 18.

The play was so stellar that the two combined for 11 birdies, including concessions – Dunlap with six and Shipley five.

With each golfer having played more than 100 holes in the week, the afternoon was not as sharp and was defined by a couple of birdies by Dunlap and miscues by Shipley.

There were a couple of classic matchplay twists. Early on the front nine, Dunlap badly missed three fairways, but he won two holes while Shipley scuffled in the rough and bunkers. Both players hit the green on the 25th hole, but Shipley three-putted to give Dunlap a 3-up lead, and Dunlap widened the margin to four with a birdie at the 28th.

Shipley, who missed a short birdie putt at the par-3 30th, still had a bit of life when Dunlap missed the green and butchered the 31st. But Shipley hooked his approach badly on the next hole, lost and fell back to 4 down.

Dunlap closed out the match at the par-3 33rd when they both made par.

Shipley, who has one season remaining at Ohio State University, was clearly disappointed, but was upbeat about how he played and the consolation prize he receives – an expected invitation into the 2024 Masters.

Nick Dunlap poses with his University of Alabama teammates, who flew in on Sunday morning to see the final. [Photo: Andrew Wevers]
“It’s pretty crazy. It’s the stuff of dreams to be doing what you’re doing, to do what I’m doing this week,” Shipley said. “Just glad I took time to soak it in every day and really enjoy it. This is likely my last Amateur, and just a really cool week and something I didn’t initially think I’d have the opportunity to do.”

Soon, Dunlap will start his sophomore year at Alabama, and he’ll no doubt be welcomed as a hero. As it is, Crimson Tide coach Jay Seawell was on hand, as were four of Dunlap’s teammates who got up early in the morning to fly in for the final.

“It’s hard to put into words,” Seawell said of his pride in Dunlap. “I think he said it best. The greatest part of being coach is to get to come along and see what nobody else sees… the hard work, the want to, the grind, the blood, sweat and tears.”

The weight of the victory will always come back to matching Woods in history. That is all the more meaningful for Dunlap, who says he has from a young age idolised the 15-time major winner.

“Just to be in the same conversation with Tiger is a dream come true and something I’ve worked my entire life for,” Dunlap said. “It’s hours and hours that nobody sees to try to get to this point and try to win this tournament. It’s just unbelievable.”

This was an amazing story, and Dunlap let it happen.