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Nick Dunlap's Alabama family joins him on PGA TOUR

7 Min Read



Formal announcement Thursday was preceded by emotional team meeting 48 hours earlier

    Written by Cameron Morfit @CMorfitPGATOUR

    TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – Nick Dunlap formally turned pro and accepted PGA TOUR membership Thursday, and there were happy tears and wistful tears and tired tears. His parents were there, plus his coach, teammates, girlfriend, agent, trainer, and sports psychologist, plus a row of TV cameras. Even in a room normally used for the twice-weekly press conferences of outgoing Alabama football coach Nick Saban, it was a packed house.

    Two days earlier, though, in front of no one at all, was the part that hit with a special resonance. That’s when Dunlap said goodbye to his teammates in a meeting few will soon forget.

    “It was beautiful,” Alabama men’s golf coach Jay Seawell said.

    Nick Dunlap on the timing of his decision to turn professional

    To be clear, the Dunlap story was already beautiful. Final-round viewership of The American Express in La Quinta, California, where he became the first amateur to win on TOUR in 33 years, was up 37% year-over-year. He was the third-ranked amateur in the world (he was No. 1 by the time he turned pro) and was 4,129th among amateurs and pros (he’s now 68th, the biggest leap in the history of the Official World Golf Ranking). He was a breath of fresh air.

    But what happened in that team meeting, in the Jerry Pate Golf Center, cut through all that and spoke to something more fundamental in Dunlap. Namely, his desire to do the right thing.

    Alabama golf coach Jay Seawell looks on as Nick Dunlap gets emotional during his press conference Thursday. (Haley Peterson/PGA TOUR)

    Alabama golf coach Jay Seawell looks on as Nick Dunlap gets emotional during his press conference Thursday. (Haley Peterson/PGA TOUR)

    The meeting was called for 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, and the man of the hour was running low on sleep. A celebratory dinner in La Quinta was followed by a drive to La Jolla (he’d been set to play in the Farmers Insurance Open but withdrew) and then a flight delay in San Diego on Monday. He and his girlfriend, Izzy Ellis, missed their connection in Atlanta, took an Uber to Birmingham, drove to Tuscaloosa, and got home at 2:30 a.m. Tuesday.

    And now, with scarcely any sleep, it was time for Dunlap to address his teammates.

    Dunlap, whose third-round 60 was the lowest by an amateur in TOUR history. Dunlap, who had locked up his PGA TOUR card through the 2026 season no matter when he turned pro, but who had the year’s remaining Signature Events and THE PLAYERS Championship waiting for him if he did so sooner rather than later.

    Dunlap nonetheless knew this wasn’t just about him. Alabama’s spring golf season is set to start Feb. 19.

    “He was so concerned about his teammates and their dreams that he came back here,” said Bhrett McCabe, a clinical and sports psychologist who works with Alabama athletes and a handful of TOUR pros. “He didn’t do it at the Farmers. He knew he needed to be with them. He doesn’t just say the right thing, he lives it.”

    Seawell spoke first, on some logistics for the spring season. Then he turned it over to Dunlap. All 11 players were in the room, plus Seawell and an assistant. Everyone knew what was coming, a moment that Dunlap would later call, “the easiest hardest decision I’ve ever had to make.” And yet that didn’t make it any easier.

    “It was hard,” Dunlap said after his press conference. “I had talked to some of the guys beforehand. I had told myself: I’m not going to get emotional, I’m not going to get emotional. And as soon as I walked up to that chair – I didn’t get a word out. Not one word. I care a lot for those guys, and leaving them mid-season is extremely difficult, but I got a lot of support from them.”

    Four teammates attended his press conference: redshirt freshman Tristin Wisener, fifth-year senior Thomas Ponder, senior J.P. Cave, and sophomore Jonathan Griz. (The others would have been here, too, but were stuck in class.) All four said they’d been blinking back tears not 48 hours earlier. Seawell, too, had to push through.

    “Coach cried when he was up there talking about team stuff because he knew what was about to happen,” said Griz, who is also Dunlap’s roommate. “I cried as soon as Nick walked up there, because I knew what he was about to say. He’s a super quiet kid, but deep down he loves so deeply.

    “There have been times he’s written me a card, out of nowhere,” Griz continued. “Or if I play bad, he’s always the first one to text and say, ‘Hey, let’s talk.’”

    Dunlap composed himself for long enough to tell his teammates that he was turning pro. They said they understood. But there was one false note, and it didn’t escape the notice of senior Canon Claycomb, who had taken the video that went viral of the Crimson Tide golfers celebrating from inside their team van on the way back from a practice round.

    “Nick was apologetic; he felt like he was leaving in the middle of the battle,” Seawell said. “Being the leader, Canon goes, ‘Don’t you ever apologize to us. We’re inspired by you; we’re turning pro with you. You ain’t leaving us.’”

    At this, Seawell, who had thought he was all cried out, began tearing up again.

    “They basically said, ‘We may not physically be with you,’” he continued, “‘but we’re going with you. So just know that we’ve got your back in this.’ I do think that he has the opportunity to be a bridge. I love this game. My father taught me this game. The game is in a really good place; the business side is not, and we need to find a way to get it back to the game. This is a start. What happened on Sunday is a start.”

    As for what happens now, Dunlap will be at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am next week, and The Genesis Invitational in three weeks. He’ll tee it up at THE PLAYERS Championship at TPC Sawgrass, where he played as a junior, and compete at the Masters Tournament, and wherever else the big boys of golf gather.

    “The opportunity to pick and choose your schedule on the PGA TOUR is unbelievable,” he said.

    He will, for the time being, keep the same caddie who was by his side at The American Express, former Alabama assistant coach Hunter Hamrick. Dunlap isn’t even sure where he might live going forward, but the part of him that always feels like home, the Alabama part, will go with him. He’ll keep a small cursive “A” on his staff bag.

    Behind the scenes with amateur Nick Dunlap after his first TOUR win

    He’ll also continue to do the right thing. When he was 12 and had won $20 off an adult at Greystone Golf & Country Club, that meant getting back on his bike and returning to the club to return the money, at the insistence of his mother, Charlene. At 20, he’s still doing the right thing, which in this case, with the biggest decision of his life upon him, meant escaping the glare of the TV cameras to return to his Alabama family.

    “I’ve never seen anybody work as hard,” said freshman Wisener. “Even when it was 15 degrees up in Huntsville, he would pull his car up next to the practice green, putt until his hands got cold, and get back in the car and warm up.”

    Fifth-year senior Ponder described Dunlap’s ascendance as inevitable.

    “It’s like when Ken Griffey takes batting practice, everyone just stops and watches,” Ponder said. “The ball makes a different sound. He’s got all the facets of the game, but it’s not just physical. It’s mental, too.”

    Fellow senior Cave laughed when he called Sunday one of the highlights of his collegiate career at Alabama.

    “You’d think a highlight would include me having an actual club in my hands,” he said. “I was so nervous my feet were sweating. My hands were sweating. But he’s the best there is from 5 to 10 feet. That putt was going in.”

    Nick Dunlap drains 72nd hole par putt to win by one at The American Express

    Although their days as roommates are numbered, Griz said he imagines being friends with Dunlap until they’re both doddering old men, dragging their families to reunions in Tuscaloosa. Dunlap would not disagree.

    “I’m going to continue to live with Griz until our lease ends in July, and then I’ll figure it out,” he said. “I’m going to be with the team until they tell me I can’t hang out with them anymore, and I can’t go to workouts and whatever.

    “Coach Seawell is gracious to continue to let me practice there,” he continued. “For the immediate future I’m going to continue to play and practice with them and keep that the same. In my mind they’re still my teammates, they’re family to me, and that’s not going to change.”

    Cameron Morfit is a Staff Writer for the PGA TOUR. He has covered rodeo, arm-wrestling, and snowmobile hill climb in addition to a lot of golf. Follow Cameron Morfit on Twitter.

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