LA QUINTA, Calif. — Nick Dunlap became the first amateur in 33 years to win on the PGA Tour, making a 6-foot par putt on the final hole for a one-shot victory over Christiaan Bezuidenhout at The American Express on Sunday.
Dunlap, the 20-year-old University of Alabama sophomore and reigning U.S. Amateur champion, is the first amateur winner since Phil Mickelson at the Tucson Open in 1991. Playing in just his fourth tour event, he became only the seventh amateur winner since 1945 — and the third since 1957.
The only amateur in the 156-player field in the tournament long known as the Bob Hope Desert Classic, Dunlap surged into a three-shot lead with a sizzling 60 in the third round. He lost that lead Sunday on the front nine on the Stadium Course at PGA West, but he played with the resilience of a seasoned veteran down the stretch, capped by his recovery from two errant shots on the 18th for the winning par.
“Nothing like I’ve ever felt,” Dunlap said. “It was so cool to be out here and experience this as an amateur. Whether I had made that or missed that (last putt), if you would have told me (on) Wednesday night I would have a putt to win this golf tournament, I wouldn’t believe you.”
He ended up with a 2-under 70 to finish at 29-under 259 and break the tournament scoring record as a 72-hole event. He’s also the youngest winner in the event’s history, and he became the youngest amateur to win on the tour since 1910.
Bezuidenhout birdied the 18th in the group ahead to keep pressure on Dunlap, whose tee shot landed high in the rough. His second shot wasn’t much more accurate, and it might have hit a spectator before it took a fortunate roll from the rough into a grassy drainage area off the green.
Dunlap got inside 6 feet with his third shot, and he celebrated the par putt for the title with hugs from his parents, his girlfriend and his college coach, Jay Seawell, who all flew cross-country over the weekend to watch in person.
Dunlap and Tiger Woods are the only golfers to win both the U.S. Amateur and the U.S. Junior Amateur. While Dunlap got the celebration Sunday for one of the most impressive performances in recent golf history, he doesn’t get the $1.5 million first-place prize, which goes to Bezuidenhout after the South African’s final-round 65.
Dunlap also doesn’t get the 500 FedEx Cup points — but his rewards are still ample. If he stays at Alabama he gets in the Masters, U.S. Open and British Open as the U.S. Amateur champion. If he turns pro and joins the PGA Tour, he still gets in the Masters and U.S. Open, along with the remaining seven $20 million signature events on tour.
“It’s amazing,” Bezuidenhout said of Dunlap’s achievement. “Actually, I heard his name last year when he won the U.S. Amateur. He’s obviously a hell of a player, and congrats to him. Hopefully he can be out on the PGA Tour soon, and we all can get to play with him.”
Dunlap and his parents both said they hadn’t immediately decided what he’ll do next — but his meteoric career hit yet another height in the Coachella Valley.
Dunlap showed mental toughness while playing through obvious nerves in his final round. His three-shot lead vanished all at once when he put his tee shot into the water and double-bogeyed the seventh while Sam Burns birdied it.
“We hadn’t faced much adversity yet, and hitting my ball in the water on seven, it tested everything I had,” Dunlap said. “I missed a couple putts that I thought I was going to make. … It’s never going to go how you plan, and it didn’t. I’m so happy to be standing here.”
Dunlap coolly rebounded and battled Burns down the stretch, pulling even with a birdie on the 16th.
And then Burns was the one who flinched, completely missing the famed island green on the 17th and hitting the water with his 164-yard drive. He also missed a 26-foot bogey putt, abruptly handing a two-shot lead to Dunlap going to the 18th.
Dunlap thought he still had a two-stroke lead when he teed it up, since he and his caddie didn’t check the leaderboard or see Bezuidenhout’s birdie. His first two errant shots heightened the tension, but Dunlap came through with the biggest par of his life.
“I think I hit somebody” with the second shot, Dunlap said. “I’m sorry. I don’t know who that was. But got a great break and was able to give myself a good look.”
Justin Thomas, Xander Schauffele and Kevin Yu tied for third at 27 under. Burns led the event after two rounds with a career-low 61, and he was tied with two holes to play Sunday before hitting into the water on each of his final two holes and carding back-to-back double bogeys, finishing in a tie for sixth.
___ AP golf: https://apnews.com/golf