LA QUINTA, Calif. — When Chris Gilley’s head hit the pillow Friday night, the head golf professional at La Quinta Country Club had no clue that he would be a part of living history the next morning.
And then, in the overcast dawn before Saturday’s third round of the 2024 American Express, his phone rang.
“At 7:45 in the morning, I got the call that Will Furr withdrew,” said Gilley, “and was asked if I wanted to play some golf, which I’m always prepared for.”
Such prep has ample precedent as Gilley has received American Express withdrawal marker fill-in calls on four previous occasions across his eight years as La Quinta’s head pro.
This fill-in iteration, however, was unlike any which preceded it.
“The way it was said to me was, ‘the amateur you’re playing with is in the top five,’” Gilley said. “And I thought, ‘the amateur, in the pro-am, was having a good couple of days, and that he or she was in the top five.’ But when I went and looked at the tee sheet it was, ‘No. I’m playing with Nick Dunlap, the amateur who’s tied for third! This is gonna’ be great!’”
Gilley’s early morning enthusiasm proved an ultimate understatement. He soon had a front-row seat to one of the most magical rounds in the event’s 65-year history.
Dunlap, a 20-year-old sophomore from the University of Alabama and reigning U.S. Amateur champion, shot a bogey-free 12-under 60 at La Quinta, giving him a three-shot lead over Sam Burns heading into Sunday’s final round at the Pete Dye Stadium Course.
As Gilley fast assessed that Dunlap’s caddie had never seen La Quinta Country Club, he concurrently learned it was also the player’s maiden voyage on the grounds.
“So, I had to catch myself from sharing anything about the course,” smiled Gilley. “I just left it at: ‘It’s all right there in front of you.’ And boy was it.”
Preceding Dunlap’s superb 30-30 card on Saturday, the brass at La Quinta Country Club sent out a message blast informing members of Gilley’s participation. The resulting, initial gallery for the 9:36 a.m. tee time, starting on the grounds’ back nine, was heavy with Gilley-backed enthusiasm, if not modest in heft.
Such volume would soon change.
“I had the tee box on 10, I had the tee box on 11, and, after my…