Can Nick Dunlap (Titleist) and Rose Zhang (Callaway) be the future of men’s and women’s professional golf?
It’s certainly a possibility.
Dunlap’s history-making win last week in the American Express and his announcement this week he is turning pro has created some badly-needed hype for the embattled PGA Tour as it struggles to repel the ongoing attack from LIV Golf purloining its star players.
The sophomore at the University of Alabama gave the entire golf world a story for the ages winning the American Express and becoming the first amateur to finish first in a PGA even since Phil Mickelson (Callaway) finished atop the 1991 Northern Telecom Open and only the seventh overall. He is also the only player outside of Tiger Woods to win the U.S. Amateur and the U.S. Junior Amateur titles.
He is going to make some serious money. So while his amateur status precluded him from collecting the American Express’s first-place cheque of $1.5 million, that is no longer an issue. He is now exempt on the PGA Tour through 2026 by turning pro.
The money he was forced to forfeit because of his amateur status will be quickly paid off in endorsement money. He’s a marketer’s delight. He’s young, good looking and oozing with talent. He proved that growing up and in university and underlined it in the American Express standing literally and figuratively tall while the pressure ratcheted up. While others around him made unforced errors, namely Sam Burns (Callaway) in the final two holes, Dunlap did not wilt.
There was a touching moment on the last hole after he made his final putt to seal the win when he received a genuine embrace from Justin Thomas (Titleist). Thomas, playing in the final group, finished tied for third with his best outing in more than a year and then gave Dunlap a long hug and said something. Whatever it was you could tell it was more than just “congrats.”
To think Dunlap could immediately step into the PGA Tour full-time and become a top-10 player and win one or more tournaments this year may be wishful thinking. Then again, he has proven at every level he has some innate talent that must be respected.
I compare it to Zhang, who turned pro last May, eschewing her final two years of university at Stanford
and won her first pro tournament, the Mizuho America’s Open in a playoff over veteran Jennifer Kupcho (Titleist). Zhang established a variety of firsts winning for the first time as a pro in her LPGA Tour winner. She was a sponsor’s exempt going into the event and turned pro immediately afterward. Like Dunlap, Zhang had an impressive pedigree. She won the 2020 U.S. Women’s Amateur, the 2021 U.S. Girls’ Junior, won 12 titles in 20 tournaments, was a member of back-to-back Division 1 Women’s Golf Championships and won the 2023 Augusta National Women’s Amateur. She was expected to do well as a pro, just not that quickly.
Overall, she played in 13 events, made the cut in all but one, and totalled more than $1.3 million in prize money.
By year’s end she was selected to the U.S. team in the Solheim Cup.
She tied for seventh in her 2024 debut and will be in The Match 2024 on February 26.
So, the future is bright on the PGA Tour with Dunlap and the LPGA Tour with Zhang.