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Dunlap returns to Pinehurst No. 2 a TOUR winner, no longer an amateur

Gregory Shamus / Getty Images Sport / Getty

PINEHURST, N.C. (AP) — Nick Dunlap walked away from Pinehurst No. 2 less than a year ago with a shiny trophy to show for his work.

Very little remains the same as he returns for the U.S. Open.

The 20-year-old champion of the North & South Amateur, played over the same Donald Ross classic that courses its way through the North Carolina pines, earned his spot in this week's field by winning last year's U.S. Amateur.

Thing is, Dunlap is no longer an amateur at all, having instead turned professional shortly after turning heads at the American Express in January, when he became the first amateur since Phil Mickelson 33 years earlier to win on the PGA Tour.

“I thought it was going to kind of be a little bit of a learning curve early on, and it’s hard to tell myself that as I’m going through the year,” Dunlap said, “but I’m quickly seeing what I need to improve on, and I knew I needed to improve a couple things while being out here and being able to compete week to week. I feel like I’m finally starting to get a little bit of a grasp on that.”

The on-the-job training has been tougher than Dunlap expected.

In most amateur events, he could rip his driver to generous and accepting fairways. Now, Dunlap's finding landing strips a little narrower with a whole lot more trouble. And those short irons that he used to attack favorable hole locations? Now they are long irons with little margin for error, hit to spots on the green the size of a hula hoop.

That is especially true at Pinehurst No. 2, where misplayed approaches can run off the green and 40 yards down the fairway.

Asked if the course this week is playing any different than last year, Dunlap replied: “Yeah, tack on about 500 yards.”

“It’s still the same principles of this golf course. You can’t short-side yourself. You have to leave it below the hole. Sometimes miss the greens, sometimes 25 feet above it. A lot of putting,” he said. “Once you get on the greens, it’s extremely fast.”

Dunlap should be accustomed to things moving fast, though.

One week he was an amateur with a certain set of goals, such as winning an NCAA title, and the next he was no longer playing with the familiar script-A of Alabama on his chest but with the logo of a company paying for him to perform.

Dunlap promptly failed to break par in four of his first five rounds as a pro. He also missed the cut at Riviera, the Players Championship and the Masters, where Neal Shipley — whom he defeated in the U.S. Amateur finals — achieved cult-hero status by outplaying his playing partner, Tiger Woods, on the way to low-amateur honors.

Yet it's not as if Dunlap was unprepared to leave college behind, even if he still calls Tuscaloosa home. He was the No. 1 amateur in the world, after all, and the only player besides Woods to win both the U.S. Junior Amateur and U.S. Amateur.

“Last week was pretty eye-opening for me in realizing sometimes you’re not going to hit the green, even if you are on the fairway,” said Dunlap, who earned his richest payday to date by tying for 12th at the Memorial. “It’s taken me a little while to realize how to play some of these golf courses. Even par is a great score.”

Dunlap made $430,333 for his performance at Muirfield Village, by the way, pushing the earnings in his neophyte career to a shade over $1 million. (Incidentally, he would have earned $1,512,000 had he won the American Express as a pro.)

So add his bank account to something that has changed since Dunlap last played a tournament at Pinehurst No. 2.

“The platform that I've been on the past couple weeks has helped,” he said. “Your bad shots are penalized a little bit more. You have to be way more patient. You have to be OK about bogeys, avoid doubles. Some of the golf courses I played on recently have helped me a little bit more and prepared me for that. I’m starting to kind of understand what I need to do week to week."

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