LA QUINTA — The tournament that operated under Bob Hope’s name for so many years has almost always been a birdie harvest. But even by those standards, this was crazy.
Justin Thomas, 30, is a University of Alabama alumnus who has been playing professionally for a decade and has 15 PGA Tour victories on his ledger. And he had one of those runs on the back nine on the Pete Dye Stadium Course on Saturday afternoon, a string of six straight birdies that put him at 23-under and, amazingly, within range of a 59 if he eagled 18.
He didn’t, but even if he had he would have been upstaged by another Alabama guy.
Nick Dunlap, a Crimson Tide sophomore playing this event as an amateur, shot a 60 Saturday, the lowest single round by an amateur on the PGA Tour since UCLA’s Patrick Cantlay shot a 60 at the Travelers Championship in June 2011. The 20-year-old Dunlap will carry a four-shot lead into Sunday’s final round at a whopping 27-under.
Um, Roll Tide?
Maybe, in the post-Nick Saban landscape, the goal will be for Alabama to have a football team of which its golf team – or at least golf alumni – can be proud. The Southeastern Conference, shut out of football’s national championship game this month, is making its presence felt at the top of a crowded leaderboard in the California desert. Sam Burns, an LSU product who had the second-round lead (and who lost a football wager with Thomas and had to have “RTR” for Roll Tide Roll carved into his hair as a result) is sandwiched between the two Alabama guys, at 24-under after a 7-under 65 Saturday.
They’ll make up an all-SEC final threesome Sunday, going off at 11:02 a.m. on the Stadium Course. (Yeah, I know, it just means more …)
Did anyone see this coming from Dunlap when the week started? He is the defending U.S. Amateur champ, and he qualified for the U.S. Open the past two years. He missed the cut both times, but while he missed it by six shots in June at Los Angeles Country Club, he was also six shots better than the aforementioned Thomas.
Dunlap started this tournament with rounds of 64 and 65, and after Friday’s round he said the key to playing well as an amateur on this stage was “just trusting myself, as cliché as that sounds.”
It’s easy to trust yourself when the putts are falling.
“The hole looked like a funnel,” he said after Saturday’s round, and if you are a recreational golfer and you’ve ever experienced that feeling, don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.
“The putter felt really good,” he continued. “I don’t think I missed anything that I should have made, per se. Drove it well. Hit the irons really good. I don’t have any negatives after that round. I did everything pretty well.”
We could say this was the round of his life, to now, but consider: As a 12-year-old in 2016, Dunlap shot a 59 at Highland Park golf course in Birmingham, Ala., to win a local event by 13 shots. He’d shot a 64 two days earlier. And he shot a 60 in the second round of a college event last fall.
“I appreciate that,” he said with a laugh when a questioner asked him why he’s so good.
“Honestly, I play a course back home in Huntsville, I played there for about two years. It’s very easy, it’s kind of in front of you, but it teaches you how to break that barrier of 8-, 9-, 10-under and keep it going. Especially out here, I was 15-under through two rounds, and I … was two back of the lead. So I think that kind of shows you, you have to keep your foot down out here. I think that kind of goes for all of professional golf. These guys are really, really good and it’s fun to be out here competing with ’em.”
Cantlay, eight shots back of Dunlap going into the final round after a 5-under 67 Saturday, recalled his 60 as an amateur as “just a day when everything went right,” and said Dunlap’s feat was “very impressive, amateur or not amateur.”
Thomas, whose last victory was the 2022 PGA Championship in a playoff with Will Zalatoris, hadn’t played in the same group with Dunlap before now. Adding to the intrigue in that final threesome: Dunlap’s caddie is one of Thomas’ former college teammates, Hunter Hamrick.
“Yeah, Ham Bones, he was one of my best friends in college,” Thomas said. “We roomed together every single week. We hung out a lot. We did a lot of stuff together. So, yeah … I hadn’t seen him in a long time, and we were able to catch up early this week and so it looks like we’ll have 18 holes to chat a little (Sunday).”
As for the player for whom Hamrick now works?
“I’ve heard he’s an unbelievable player,” Thomas said. “He rises to the occasion and to the moment, which is something I don’t think you can really teach to anybody. He’s played well in all the biggest stages, which says something very impressive. Yeah, tomorrow’s a great day for Alabama golf, I know Coach (Jay) Seawell is going to be tuned in very closely to the TV, but, yeah, for me, it’s not necessarily about that, I’m trying to go chase him down and outrace everybody else.”
Burns, 27, who has been on the tour five years and has five victories, recalled his first time in contention going into Sunday, and noted that the night before the final round can torment you if you let it.
“Away from the golf course is a little more difficult,” he said. I think, once you got out here, you kind of get into your routine. Obviously Nick’s a great player, and I think he’s got a good head on him, so I think it’s going to be a really tough challenge for us tomorrow.”
Dunlap said Saturday he’d “probably turn off my phone. My girlfriend just landed, so (I’ll) go hang out with her, do some laundry. I’m still trying to figure out this whole two weeks on the road laundry thing with the Tour. So, I’ll probably go do that, and get a nice dinner and try to get some sleep.”
We’ll know for sure by Sunday evening if doing laundry is sufficient to calm the nerves.