During his career as a professional golfer, Duluth resident Scott Dunlap has played all over the world on a variety of tours, winning tournaments in six different countries from Canada to South America to South Africa.
For the past decade, Dunlap’s home has been the Nationwide/Web.com Tour, which he has played every year since 2003. Dunlap was a PGA Tour member for six seasons from 1996 to 2002, but other than a brief return in 2012, has toiled in golf’s version of Major League Baseball’s Class AAA.
Dunlap turned 50 last August, and after a respectable 2013 season on the Web.com Tour, had a shot to return to the PGA Tour with a strong showing in the final four tournaments on the schedule. Dunlap missed the cut in three of the four, ending his hopes of what was likely a last shot at getting back into golf’s major leagues.
But the calendar gave Dunlap a second opportunity at securing an alternative to the Web.com Tour, where he competes against players half his age whose average drives are longer than Dunlap’s most prodigious pokes.
Dunlap made it into the final Champions Tour event of 2013 in a Monday qualifier, and immediately found competing against his contemporaries a welcome respite from his weekly battles against younger, stronger opponents. He tied for 15th in San Antonio after contending through two rounds, and headed to a familiar late-season destination – Q-school.
This time, he was competing against players his age, unlike the past dozen or so years, only one of which concluded with his return to the PGA Tour.
For three rounds at TPC Scottsdale, Dunlap seemed headed for a spot in the top five of Champions Tour qualifying, which would provide him with exempt status for 2014. After scores of 69-64-66, he was third heading to the final day. But disaster struck early, as he drove into a bush on the third hole and made triple bogey.
The rest of the round consisted of lots of birdies (5) and bogeys (4), including one of the final hole that required Dunlap to return to the course the following morning for a 5-man playoff for the final two exempt spots. It could have been an 8-man playoff, but three other players bogeyed the final hole to come up one shot short.
“I should have been a shoe-in,” Dunlap said of his situation. He recovered from the triple bogey, rattling off four birdies in a 5-hole stretch beginning at the ninth, but the bogey at 18 put his hopes in jeopardy.
“There were no scoreboards, so I didn’t know what was doing,” he said, learning of the playoff after concluding his round.
The playoff began on what Dunlap described as “a long, hard par 4. He was the lone player of the five to hit the fairway, managed a par, and just like that, was an exempt member of the Champions Tour.
“At the end of the day it worked out,” Dunlap said, returning to his home in Duluth with the knowledge he would have to work out a schedule mixing both Champions and Web.com events in 2014.
Although he still enjoys the challenge of competing against younger players, Dunlap made the financially prudent decision that the Champions Tour would be his primary focus.
“I did not try to qualify for the Champions Tour to not play it,” he said.
“There are only a handful of spots at Q-school. It’s not really a big, wide-open door for people to walk through. You have to play well.”
After his first four tournaments as a Champions Tour member, Dunlap has quickly established himself as a player who will be a contender on a regular basis, a status he never really enjoyed during his years on the PGA and Nationwide/Web.com Tours.
Dunlap’s first round of 2014 was a 63 in Boca Raton, Fla., which was overshadowed by Michael Allen’s 60. Dunlap followed with a 67 to close to within one of Allen’s lead, but struggled to a 76 the final round and fell to a tie for 15th, matching his finish in his first Champions Tour start in 2013.
After an unproductive showing the next week in Naples, Dunlap headed to California, where he scored his lone U.S. victory during his career as a member of the Nationwide Tour in 2004. He again placed himself in contention after a second round 64, and made a strong run at victory, closing with a 68 to tie for 5th, just two shots behind tournament winner Fred Couples.
“That was a little bit better than Boca,” Dunlap said a few days after his near miss. “I did not play quite well enough to put it away, but I had a chance at it at the end.
Dunlap was encouraged that he was able to hang in contention until the last hole, with some quality shots coming down the stretch interspersed with a few slightly errant approaches he said he could live with.
“I had a couple of pulled iron shots on the back nine. That’s not what I normally do, but I ripped ‘em long and left and short-sided myself into some tough up-and-downs.”
Dunlap gave himself a chance to get up and down on two of the finishing holes, but could not convert the putts, which has been a recurring theme during his entire career.
It had been a while since Dunlap seriously contended for victory, and the fact he has done so on a repeat basis this early in his Champions Tour is an encouraging sign.
Dunlap played in the next to last group on Sunday in his lone Champions Tour start in 2013, and was in the final group Sunday in Boca. Adding his strong showing in California, Dunlap notes that he is “three for four” in challenging for a victory, “and that’s positive. That says that something better is soon ahead.”
In his next start in the Mississippi Gulf Resort Classic, Dunlap was in position for a top-10 finish, but a birdie-less back nine left him tied for 19th, just two shots out a tie for 6th.
The top-20 finish boosted Dunlap’s earnings for the year to $112,705, good for 22nd on the money list heading into the Greater Gwinnett Championship.
Dunlap’s early success has elevated his status on the Champions Tour, and should enable him to get into just about every tournament this year, which will reduce his anticipated Web.com schedule.
“In my perfect world, I’d play about 20 Champions events and maybe 10 to 12 on the Web.com,” Dunlap offered.
Dunlap was hoping to get enough Web.com starts to give him a chance to finish in the top 75 on that tour’s money list, which would get him into the four-tournament series at the end of the season and a shot at the 2015 PGA Tour.
He believes he still has the game to compete against younger players, but can’t pass up the opportunity to play for bigger purses with a greater likelihood of success in the over-50 events.
“If I do well on the Champions Tour and deprive myself of opportunities on the Web.com, so be it.”
Dunlap made two early-season starts on the Web.com Tour, missing the cut in Chile and tying for 51st in Louisiana. One of the tournaments he missed was in Panama, the site of his last victory in 2008.
“I’ll play it when I can, but not as much as the Champions Tour. I expected to play 10 to 12, but now it may be as few as six if I get into the Champions majors and invitationals. The Web.com will take a back seat.”
Now that both tours are playing on a more frequent basis, Dunlap will not have many off weeks the rest of the season, but one of them comes early this month.
Dunlap, who rarely gets to spend several weeks at home in a row during the golf season, will be at home three straight weeks in April, including Masters week, when he will host a visiting friend.
The following week will be a rare working from home experience, as Dunlap will make his first start in the Greater Gwinnett Championship.
“That will be the end of a fun three weeks,” he says. “It will be a nice stretch at home.”
Dunlap is looking forward to playing TPC Sugarloaf in competition again. He had a mixed record at the course when it hosted a PGA Tour event, highlighted by a tie for 6th in 2005, when he finished one shot out of a playoff after playing his way into the field in a Monday qualifier.
“I like the golf course and know how to play it,” says Dunlap. “That doesn’t mean I’m going to. I don’t play it very frequently.
“Sometimes a home game is good and sometimes it’s not because of the expectations. But I’m looking forward to it.”