ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – It was the matchup that everyone wanted to see a couple weeks ago at the U.S. Amateur, just a few rounds too early: World No. 1 Gordon Sargent versus Nick Dunlap, the hottest amateur on the planet. Dunlap, of course, got the better of Sargent at Cherry Hills, winning their first-round meeting, 2 and 1, and later that evening Sargent texted Dunlap a lengthy message.
The gist of it: You’re the best player in the world right now, and you proved it today. Go win this thing.
“If I’m going to lose to someone, I want to lose to the best player in the field,” Sargent said. “And after I lost, I felt like he was the best player, and I just wanted him to know that, too.”
Added Dunlap, who went on to lift the Havemeyer Trophy: “It was really cool seeing that, and to play and beat him, it gave me a ton of momentum and confidence. I felt like if I could beat him, I could beat anybody.”
Fast forward to Saturday evening in St. Andrews, and with the U.S. trailing Great Britain and Ireland by three points after the first day of the 49th Walker Cup, the American players were fairly somber as they headed back to their lodging for the week, the Old Course Hotel. Sargent and Dunlap, though, couldn’t keep quiet for long as they lobbied U.S. captain Mike McCoy to unleash the beast.
All week there had been rumblings of a Sargent-Dunlap foursomes pairing, and with the visitors needing to mount a comeback, their thought process was this:
Sargent, still No. 1 in the world, was 2-0 this week as he’s overpowered the Old Course with driver after driver.
Dunlap was 0-2 and had just been blitzed in singles by England’s John Gough, but perhaps teaming up with Sargent would reenergize the U.S. Amateur champion.
The two most scintillating golf prospects in the world would be tough to beat.
“I think we had the mindset that if we’re paired together, we’re not losing,” Sargent said.
And so, McCoy pulled the trigger, sending out his two superstars in the second of four matches out, where Sargent and Dunlap would face the Scottish pair of Calum Scott and 16-year-old Connor Graham, who took down the formidable duo of Caleb Surratt and Ben James on Saturday morning.
It was a pairing over a decade in the making.
Sargent and Dunlap grew up about 20 minutes from each other in Birmingham, Alabama, but other than a handful of U.S. Kids and state junior tournaments each year, they didn’t see a ton of each other through middle school and into high school. Sargent, a year older, belonged to Shoal Creek and the Country Club of Birmingham, the latter the home course for his high school, juggernaut Mountain Brook. Dunlap played at Greystone and hung out with a lot of the older members, including his mentor and now caddie, former KFT pro Jeff Curl.
“They were never close friends because they lived on different sides of town and went to different schools,” Sargent’s dad, Seth, said, “But they were always competitive with each other and always respected each other.”
Before he was the longest player in amateur golf, Sargent was a small kid with a big game. Dunlap, on the other hand, was a big kid with a big game.
“Nick was a giant, a foot taller than everybody,” said Vanderbilt head coach Scott Limbaugh, who a decade ago was Jay Seawell’s assistant at Alabama. “Nick was the guy shooting 32. Gordon was still like 4 feet tall.”
The Dunlaps briefly moved to Greenville, South Carolina, right before Nick’s freshman year of high school and shortly after Dunlap edged out Sargent as the 2018 Alabama Junior Player of the Year. Three years later, Dunlap, who was homeschooled after his family moved back to Alabama (about an hour and a half north in Huntsville), won the U.S. Junior Amateur.
But last season, as Dunlap battled left wrist tendonitis in his freshman season at Alabama, Sargent’s legend began to soar. On the heels of winning the NCAA Championship as a freshman at Vanderbilt, Sargent became a household name after being invited to and playing in the Masters, his prodigious length wowing the likes of Rory McIlroy and Brooks Koepka – and everybody else for that matter – in a practice round.
Sargent was quickly tabbed as the next big thing, and later this year he will officially earn a PGA Tour card through PGA Tour University Accelerated. He’s already got an agent, Excel, the same company that reps Tiger Woods. And Titleist and FootJoy are among his NIL partners.
Now, it’s Dunlap’s turn to go through all that – and he’ll have Sargent as one of his greatest resources as the two have grown closer in recent months as they’ve prepared for this Walker Cup. A week before the U.S. Amateur, Sargent, Dunlap, Surratt and David Ford spent a few days together at Castle Pines, playing some matches and bonding.
“I feel like we kind of grew up being compared to each other a little bit, being from the same hometown and going to two SEC schools that are a little bit different,” Dunlap said last Thursday. “But it’s been really nice to get to know him more than just the player that he is. Obviously, hell of a player. His accolades stand for itself. But like I said, it’s been really fun getting to know him … and look forward to playing some more golf with him.”
Added Seawell: “It’s good to see them reenergized as friends. They’re going to have a 20-year career together on the PGA Tour, like Jordan [Spieth] and Justin [Thomas].”
Dunlap couldn’t remember if he and Sargent had ever been on the same team, let alone paired – maybe an AJGA Wyndham Cup – but on Sunday morning at St. Andrews, they both got their wish. Dunlap reckoned that he played his best golf of the entire U.S. Amateur against Sargent, and all it took was the pair to be reunited to snap Dunlap out of his mini funk.
“That puts pressure on when you’re two guys on the team that the captain relies on,” Sargent said, “but it also gives us confidence just knowing if we go out and play our game, we’ll be OK.”
Dunlap rolled in a birdie putt at par-4 third to give the Americans a 1-up lead before Sargent canned a 30-footer on top of Graham’s 35-foot birdie make at the par-4 fourth. In crazy wind, the U.S. dynamic duo held a 2-up lead for much of the match, with a key moment coming at the exposed par-3 11th, where Dunlap converted a 7-foot tickler to save par.
A couple sloppy holes, at Nos. 13 and 15, let GB&I tie things up – and Dunlap missed a shortie for birdie to halve the par-5 14th – but just like they’ve done countless times in this sport, Sargent and Dunlap clutched up.
Birdies at two of the last three holes – all three holes capped by Sargent putts – gave Sargent and Dunlap the 1-up victory and the U.S. another important point in what ended up being a 3-1 session to close the gap to one point, 8.5-7.5, with 10 singles matches on tap Sunday afternoon.
“You never want to give your opponent chances,” Sargent said, “and I don’t think we really liked that GB&I roar the past couple days, so we decided we don’t want to give them even a chance.”
Added Dunlap: “We like it quiet out here, nice and peaceful.”
Birmingham, however, was surely humming.