CHERRY HILLS VILLAGE, Colo. — The date was June 10, 2014. Jeff Curl was on the range practicing at Greystone Golf and Country Club in Birmingham, Alabama, when some heavy rains blew through. Curl, then on the now-named Korn Ferry Tour, was hitting balls and getting practice in. Next to him was a 10-year-old Nick Dunlap.
It didn’t matter how heavy the rain was, Dunlap stuck next to Curl, mimicking the professional. Dunlap striped shots in the rain over and over again.
Curl stepped back, took a photo and posted it on social media. The caption said, “Practicing on this soggy day with future tour star Nick Dunlap. #KidIsLegit.”
Nearly a decade later, Curl’s prediction seems well on its way to being true.
U.S. Amateur: Photos from Cherry Hills
Dunlap capped an incredible summer Sunday, winning the 2023 U.S. Amateur at Cherry Hills Country Club. He defeated Neal Shipley, 4 and 3, in the 36-hole final. The duo was tied after the 18-hole mark, but Dunlap was relentless during the second 18 holes and lights out with his putter.
“I truly believe by the time he’s 25, he’ll be the No. 1 player in the world,” Curl said on the 15th green after Dunlap clinched his match. “He’s got it.”
— Jeff Curl (@JCurl1031) June 10, 2014
With the victory, Dunlap is the second male amateur to win the U.S. Junior, which he captured two years ago, and the U.S. Amateur. The other is Tiger Woods.
Coming into the week, the 19-year-old rising sophomore at Alabama was one of the favorites. He had been the best male amateur in golf this summer, with his counterpart Shipley being the second best. Dunlap had captured the Northeast Amateur and the North & South Amateur.
However, his U.S. Amateur campaign got off to a rough start. He was 5 over after seven holes at stroke-play co-host Colorado Golf Club in a stretch that included playing the wrong ball on the third hole and four putting on the fifth.
But Curl, who was on the bag for his U.S. Junior win, as well, wrote something down in his yardage book. “This can be an AMAZING story if you let go and LET IT HAPPEN!!!”
“I was honestly just trying to give myself a chance with nine holes to play to try to make the cut,” Dunlap said.
Dunlap, who was ninth in the World Amateur Golf Ranking, fought back and ended shooting up even-par the rest of the day. He finished T-38 after stroke play and got the 41st seed in match play.
His opening matchup? World No. 1 Gordon Sargent.
He dispatched his future Walker Cup teammate and then beat Denver native Connor Jones 4 and 2. He needed 19 holes in his quarterfinal to advance against incoming Auburn freshman Jackson Koivun, overcoming a cold putter. Then in the semifinals and championship match, that same putter took over.
“I’m stoked with how I played,” Dunlap said. “I executed exactly what I was trying to do.”
Dunlap was 1 up thru 17 holes in the morning wave before Shipley hit one tight on the 18th and made birdie. Shipley, a 22-year-old graduate student from Ohio State, became a fan favorite during the weeks thanks to his long hair and interactions with the crowd.
Dunlap received cheers, but when Shipley did something well, the crowd of nearly 4,000 roared.
“I just never thought that would happen ever,” Shipley said. “This is going to be a special place because of that.”
Dunlap said the turning point came on the par-4 ninth, the 27th hole, when he made a long birdie putt when Shipley was in tight. He said that stopped Shipley trying to gain back momentum and kept him at arm’s length.
Even late in the round as Dunlap led 4-up with six to play, Shipley threw a shot to 5 feet on the par-4 13th, bringing the electric crowd to its feet with thunderous applause. Dunlap was long and in the rough and took two shots to get out, conceding the hole.
Both players found the fairway with their tee shots on the par-4 14th, but Shipley pulled his approach to a front left pin and was nearly in the water. With an open green, Dunlap’s approach also went left but not as far. Shipley had to hack at it ball, and it skirted across the green.
With a chance to close the door, Dunlap left his first chip short but then used a Texas wedge to get a conceded bogey. Shipley had a chance to match but missed a 4-footer, the victim of a cold putter during the afternoon round.
Then on 15, the closing par 3, Dunlap two putted for par and Shipley missed his birdie chance, ending the match.
“The nerves, I couldn’t feel my hands, I couldn’t feel my legs,” Dunlap said. “Couldn’t feel anything.”
Dunlap’s Alabama teammates flew in early Sunday morning and were there for a majority of the championship match. Coach Jay Seawell was there since Saturday and had a celebratory milkshake after the small ceremony on the 15th green.
“I’m just so proud of him,” said Seawell, who Saturday said Dunlap was as talented as any player he had coached. “All I told him was thank you, there’s a lot of people you’ve allowed to come alongside of you.”
Dunlap’s parents also arrived Saturday, so there were plenty of photos and hugs following his win.
Even with his poor start, Dunlap found a way to get into match play. Then he slowly and methodically took apart each opponent, creeping closer to the championship match.
After Sunday, Dunlap’s record in match play dating to July 2021 is 30-2. It was the first time in four appearances he made match play at the U.S. Amateur.
“I just learned that I could do it,” Dunlap said. “I always thought I could, but when you’re 5 over thru seven, your mind is spinning, you can’t see straight and all you see is red.
“I just learned that anything is possible as long as you put your mind to it.”
The best amateur in the world won the best amateur championship in the world. And he made history doing so.
The first name the champ looked for on the Havemeyer Trophy when he got it? Tiger Woods. A name Dunlap is paired with in the annals of the sport forever.