For almost his entire professional career, Scott Dunlap has been a textbook example of the quintessential journeyman tour pro.
Dunlap literally fit the journey part of that description, playing in South Africa, Canada and South America along with a 6-year stint on the PGA Tour from 1996-2002 and a career-length stretch on what is now the Web.com Tour that spanned a quarter century and included membership under all five title sponsors.
During that time, Dunlap won tournaments in six countries, but just one of his wins came in the U.S. With the exception of one season on the PGA Tour at the age of 48, Dunlap spent the entire decade of his 40s on the Web.com Tour, not the best place for a veteran player who wasn’t that long off the tee and was never an especially skilled putter.
Dunlap remained a reasonably competitive player throughout his 40s, and like tour pros of a certain age, had his calendar circled for one particular day, in his case, August 16, 2013. That was the day Dunlap turned 50 and the day his career was about to take a different direction, although not immediately.
The day he turned 50, Dunlap was competing in a Web.com tournament in Knoxville and played well enough to make it to the weekend, but not well enough to make much of a check ($1,485). He took one last shot at the PGA Tour, but played well only one out of four weeks in the Web.com Finals and fell well short in his attempt, a disappointing end to a season that began with promise. Dunlap was in the top 25 on the money list midway through the season, but did not finish as strongly as he started.
As he did frequently late in the year, Dunlap set his sights on the qualifying tournament for the following season, but this time it was qualifying for the Champions Tour. To get a little tournament action in, Dunlap entered a Monday qualifier for the final regular season event of the season, played his way into the field and tied for 15th, earning more than one-third as much money ($32,300) in one weekend as he had the entire season on the Web.com Tour ($95.000).
One month later, Dunlap was playing in the finals of Champions Tour qualifying and for 54 holes, was looking good for one of five exempt spots for the 2014 season. After shooting 69-64-66 the first three days, Dunlap closed with a 73, recovering from an early triple bogey with a string of birdies before a 3-putt on the 72nd hole sent him into a 5-way playoff for the final two spots.
Several of Dunlap’s fellow competitors had a tougher time the last day than he did, and that continued in the playoff. Dunlap parred the first extra hole and three of other four players made bogey or worse. Dunlap exited the playoff with exempt status on the Champions Tour for 2014, and about a year-and-half later, has a much healthier bank account and a less stressful professional outlook.
Dunlap finished his rookie season 10th on the money list with $1.1 million, the most money he has made in a year as a tour player. The highlight of his season was a victory in the Boeing Classic in Seattle, part of a career-changing two-month stretch of golf that changed Dunlap’s journeyman status to frequent Champions Tour contender.
During that stretch, Dunlap had top-10 finishes in the U.S. and British Senior Opens, his win in Seattle, and consecutive runner-up finishes in Quebec and Hawaii, an appropriate geographical pair considering his career travels.
Dunlap was among the players competing in the recent Greater Gwinnett Championship at TPC Sugarloaf, a home game for Dunlap, a long time Duluth resident. It was not a particularly profitable week for Dunlap, who tied for 31st and collected a check for $11,400, which left him 17th on the money list six tournaments into the 2015 season.
After he completed what turned out to be the final round of the rain-shortened tournament on Saturday, Dunlap reflected on the change in his career since he turned 50.
“This is a nice gig if you can get out here. It’s a tough start to get a shot at with five spots in qualifying. And if you don’t have much of a year and not play well, it’s all gone. You’ve got to stay in the top 30, and hopefully I’ll be able to do that again.”
Players like fellow Atlanta area resident Billy Andrade, who won four times on the PGA Tour and earned more than $12 million in his career, are exempt on the Champions Tour as soon as they become eligible, and remain that way because of their career earnings.
Dunlap’s career earnings from the PGA and Web.com Tours are under $4 million, and even after his successful rookie season last year, he is less than half way to the total needed to earn exempt status off his standing on the career money list.
The way Dunlap has been playing in his first year-plus on the Champions Tour, he may not have to worry about dropping out of the top 30 any time soon.
“The last two years I’ve played the best golf of my life at 50 and 51. I have the same length, but I was never a bomber. It’s more about not making mistakes. When I’m playing the way I can, I’m capable of some good, low rounds. My good is still really good.”
As an example, Dunlap cited last year’s season-opening Champions event in Boca Raton, Fla., his first appearance as a tour member.
“I shot 63-67-76. I had a good couple of rounds and then I shot 76, which is golf’s version of throwing up on yourself.”
The occasional poor final round was Dunlap’s main concern during his first year on the Champions Tour, and almost proved costly in two events that had a sizeable impact on his first-rate rookie season.
Dunlap had to compete in sectional qualifying to qualify for the U.S. Senior Open and needed a birdie on his final hole to avoid a playoff. He was tied for 2nd in the event after 54 holes at 4-under 209, but shot a 77 the final day to tie for 9th at 286 with Bernhard Langer, who also closed with a 77.
Fortunately for Dunlap, his finish was high enough to get him into the Senior British Open without having to qualify, and he again played well in one of the tour’s majors. A third round 65 moved him into a tie for 4th, but he fell back with a 75 the next day and tied for 6th. He still beat Tom Watson (77) and Fred Couples (78) that day, with both also among the leaders going to the final round.
Those two efforts enabled Dunlap to take a nice move up the money list and set up him for his August/September run which included a win and two runner-up finishes in a span of four tournaments.
A third round 63 gave Dunlap the lead at 12-under 132 going to the final round in Seattle and he closed with a 68, playing his last 11 holes in 5-under with an eagle on the 8th and three birdies on the back nine. Mark Brooks birdied six of the last seven holes to force a playoff, but Dunlap won on the first extra hole when he hit his second shot on the par-5 18th close to the hole and tapped in for a winning birdie after missing his eagle putt.
Two weeks later in Quebec, Dunlap shot 66-64 the last two days, with his final round including a pair of eagles and two birdies over the final 10 holes. Dunlap eagled the 18th to take the lead, but Wes Short shot 29 on the back nine and also eagled the 18th to edge Dunlap by a shot.
Dunlap finished tied for 2nd in his next start in Hawaii, shooting 65 the final day to finish one behind Paul Goydos, who birdied four straight holes late in the round.
During his tenure on the Web.com Tour from 2003-13, Dunlap scored a pair of wins, but both times he said, “My game went into the crapper for about a year. This time I followed a win up by finishing second two times. Usually I don’t do that after I expend so much energy winning. “
Until Dunlap won a Web.com event in California late in the 2004 season, all his victories had come outside the U.S. He won twice each in Canada (1994 and ’95) and South Africa (1995 and ’99) and five times in South America between 1996 and 2000, twice in Argentina and three times in Peru. His play in Canada and South Africa led to appearances on the PGA Tour and a spot in the British Open, with Dunlap’s strong 1995 season worldwide paving the way to his qualifying for the PGA Tour for the first time later that year.
Dunlap’s best season on the PGA Tour came in 2000 when he finished 44th on the money list with just over $1 million, contending in both the Players Championship and PGA. But he lost his status after the 2002 season and did not make it back to the tour until 2012, by which time he was closing in on 50.
“After I fell off the tour, I bottomed out and spent ten years on the Web.com Tour. My good was good, but there was not enough of it. I played good maybe one-third of the time.”
Dunlap added a second Web.com win in Panama to open the 2008 season, but did not play well enough the rest of the year to earn a return to the PGA Tour. He ended up 37th on the money list, his best showing in 13 seasons.
At the outset of 2014, Dunlap had status on both the Champions and Web.com Tours, and initially planned to compete on both. But after a few successful showings against players closer to his age, he bid farewell to the tour that had been his home for more than a decade.
Dunlap made more in his rookie season on the Champions Tour than in his entire Web.com career, and quickly scrapped his plans to split his schedule.
“It didn’t take a finance major from Florida to do the math,” said Dunlap, who was his high school’s valedictorian and a 1985 graduate from the U. of Florida with a finance degree.
Dunlap is enjoying his new-found success on the Champions Tour and has gained confidence from his excellent play. But his career has taught him that nothing is guaranteed in golf.
“I’m a year-to-year guy. It’s never easy out here; you have to prove yourself every year. That’s the way it should be. But I’m a whole lot better off at this stage than I was last year.”
Despite his lack of sustained success during his two decades on the PGA and Web.com Tours, Dunlap felt he was capable of holding his own on the Champions Tour.
“I knew if I played like I could play, I’d do all right. I didn’t know if I was going to win, but last year I played good enough three times. This tour has no cuts and you’re guaranteed to make a check, but you can’t get by finishing 30th every week. Then you’re 75th on the money list and you’re out of a job.”