Nick Dunlap (Back of the Range Photo)
By Alex Podlogar
With sunlight barely peering through the still rain-soaked pines and the hum of maintenance vehicles drowning out much of the morning’s serenity, the championship match of the 123rd North & South Amateur resumed a few minutes before 7 a.m. Sunday, an agreement made between rules officials and the players to go ahead and get things started again at the 11th hole of Pinehurst No. 2.
The gentility ended there.
The out-of-nowhere summer storm that had halted the match at 3:08 p.m. on Saturday and dumped 2.6 inches of rain on No. 2 could only make one wonder how that might impact conditions. Play began with Karl Vilips still holding the 2-up lead he had taken – and held – over Nick Dunlap on the first two holes of the match some 18 hours before. Vilips was faced with a short-sided shot from the right greenside bunker to begin this championship anew, but calmly nestled his ball to about 3 ½ feet from the cup.
Vilips walked to the green and to his ball, and Dunlap looked away. No concession. Not today.
“My thing in match play is if he’s going to win a hole, then I want him to earn it,” Dunlap said.
Vilips made the putt, and the two went to the 12th tee as if nothing had changed. Vilips still led 2-up. He still had the honor on the tee, as he had for all 11 holes prior. He blasted another drive down the 12th fairway.
And yet everything had changed.
In a match where, following the resumption of play, the halved holes were perhaps the most crucial ones – they were certainly the most thrilling – Dunlap rallied with precision, poise and pressure to beat Vilips 1-up and win the 123rd North & South Amateur, joining such notable past champions as Francis Ouimet, Harvie Ward, Jack Nicklaus, Curtis Strange and Davis Love III.
“Every win is special, but especially this place,” said Dunlap, who also won last week at the Northeast Amateur. “There’s so much history behind it, and then you hear some of the names to also hold this trophy, it’s really special. To be in the history books of Pinehurst forever, to hopefully get some rounds in for next year’s Open, there’s nothing like it.”
A birdie from 8 feet on the 12th hole gave Dunlap his first win of the match and crept him closer at 1-down. But 13 showed the magic in Dunlap’s game, and the cracks in Vilips’.
After a fine tee shot down the left side of the short par-4’s fairway, Dunlap hit what seemed to be a beauty of an approach shot to the tucked, front-right hole location. But his ball couldn’t hold the false front, rolling several yards back into the fairway.
Vilips, after blocking his tee shot right of the fairway into the native area, had a clean lie in the sand, but misfired in the same way. Vilips, though, hit a terrific pitch to about 5 feet.
Dunlap’s pitch skidded to a stop, failing to fully crest the hill. Slowly, painfully, the ball began its backward descent, returning to Dunlap’s feet. Facing a spotty lie, Dunlap pitched the ball past the cup, and just onto the fringe, leaving himself about 20 feet.
He pulled the pin, took one look at the hole, wedge in hand, and in one clipped motion, the ball bounced twice and rolled in for a bogey 5.
Vilips lipped out, leaving himself another 4 feet for bogey. He made it, but a likely win had turned into an improbable halve.
“Fortunately I got a gift from him,” Dunlap said of the miss. “It’s crazy how match play works. You can think you have a great chance to win the hole, and then two seconds later you’re for sure to lose the hole, and then two more seconds later you’re like, ‘I can still tie this hole.’”
And perhaps the chip-in wasn’t all that impossible.
“I grew up with a 12 x 10 chipping green, and it was literally that shot,” Dunlap said. “It was identical. It was that shot. I got to go back to eight years ago. I’ve made this shot so many times. I just kind of got up and hit it.”
“I was really confident I was going to make that putt, but the real gut-punch was seeing how much I had left after lipping out,” Vilips said. “But him chipping in was a really big moment for him.”
There were more moments to come.
After routine pars on 14, Vilips sailed his tee shot on the 200-yard par-3 15th long and right, leaving himself with a difficult pitch. He ran that by to the edge of the green, and two putts later, made bogey. Dunlap coolly drained a 4-footer for par, and the match was tied.
On 16, Vilips’ tee shot took an awkward kick and into the pinestraw left of the fairway, but he had a good lie. His approach was perhaps his best shot of the entire final – over both days – a high-arching draw around the tree protecting the left side of the green, to about 15 feet.
Dunlap, meanwhile, had lost his tee shot deep into the native area right of the fairway and under a low-hanging tree. Forced to punch out, Dunlap had one thing in mind for his long pitch into the green.
“I thought if I could just get it in the fairway, get myself a look inside of him, I may have a chance to tie the hole,” he said.
He did just that, leaving himself about 12 feet and on Vilips’ line. Vilips’ attempt grazed the left edge but didn’t fall, giving Dunlap another window. Like he had done with his birdie on 12 and his par on 15, Dunlap found the center of the cup, confidently walking the ball in as it dropped.
“Thirteen was big, but I think 16 was the turning point,” Dunlap said. “He hit a great shot on the green at 16, and to make that putt and tee off first on 17 and kind of force his hand was really big for me.”
Vilips ran his 45-foot birdie try on 17 by about 5 feet while Dunlap calmly two-putted for par. Faced with another tester, Vilips lipped out harshly again, eerily reminiscent of his miss on 13.
“Tee to green, I struck it really, really good,” Vilips said. “My putter just let me down. I haven’t been really strong with it all week, and it just finally caught up to me.
“I struggled to read the greens and hit confident putts.”
Dunlap had his first lead, walked to the 18th tee and blasted a drive so well and so far, a few of the Pinehurst caddies following the match could only shake their heads. The comeback for the 2021 U.S. Junior Amateur Champion was complete.
“It’s really hard to win, and Karl had the momentum for a lot of the day yesterday, and my goal was just to try to halt that today,” Dunlap said. “And the thing is, you never know. Golf is really hard. He had 3 ½, 4 feet, and a player like Karl, you know he’s probably going to make it 99 times out of a hundred. But…you never know. There’s that 1 percent chance.”
Dunlap’s flip wedge into 18 settled very close to the spot Payne Stewart made famous. Vilips didn’t have similar magic, and 87 minutes after the match had begun again, it was over.
“I just need to work very hard on my putter, just get comfortable with it, find a grip that will suit me,” Vilips said. “It’s going to be a journey.
“One day all the pieces to the puzzle will fall together.”
In one day, they may have. But this match needed one day more.