Utah golfer Kyler Dunkle faced staggering odds in his effort to qualify for the NCAA Championships, while figuring he would win no matter what happened.
Either he would advance to this weekend's tournament in Arkansas or he would launch his professional golf career in Canada. He played well enough in the NCAA Stanford Regional to extend his Ute career for three or four more rounds.
Dunkle will tee off Friday in the 72-hole, stroke-play portion of the tournament (the field will be cut after 54 holes), as the capstone of a three-year stint that seems to have benefited him and the program equally.
By winning three individual titles, finishing second in the 2019 Pac-12 tournament and becoming Utah’s first golfer in 13 years to qualify for nationals, Dunkle has “thrown a ton of light on the program,” Ute coach Garrett Clegg said.
And that’s a positive reflection, because of what Utah has done for Dunkle, a finalist in the 2018 State Amateur. In his Colorado State golf days, “I wouldn’t say I had the best manners. I had some anger issues,” Dunkle acknowledged. “I certainly put too much pressure on myself to do more than I was capable of.”
From his Ute teammates, Dunkle gained a new perspective of golf, and how the game is supposed to be fun. Good results have followed, including his 67-69-68 performance at Stanford Golf Course. Playing individually, Dunkle had to finish ahead of every golfer other than members of the top five teams. He succeeded with a tie for sixth place overall, finishing three strokes ahead of the nearest contestant in what amounted to his own, 50-player tournament.
“I knew it was going to be tough,” he said. “I also knew that the way I was playing … if I just kind of stuck to what I was doing, I would at least have a good chance,” Dunkle said.
Advancing to nationals is just another example of how Dunkle may have done more for his program than any other Utah athlete in the 2018-19 school year. Tennis player Dan Little is in that conversation, having become the first Ute in 22 years to win a match in the NCAA singles tournament. Yet considering that Utah’s golf team went from seven years of finishing last in the Pac-12 tournament to a tie for fifth in April, and factoring in how one golfer can significantly affect a team’s daily scores, Dunkle’s impact is tough to top in the athletic department.
In his third year as Utah’s coach, Clegg was disappointed when the Utes failed to receive a team invitation to regionals. Yet the phenomenon of coaching one player for three rounds was fun for each of them. College golfers are required to carry their own bags, but Clegg functioned as a caddie in every other way, walking and talking with Dunkle for 54 holes at Stanford.
They’ll hope to have another enjoyable experience at The Blessings Golf Club in Fayetteville, Ark. Dunkle will play next week in Victoria, British Columbia, in the season’s second event of the PGA Tour-branded Mackenzie Tour Canada. He earned entry into the first six tournaments of the 2019 schedule via a qualifying event in San Antonio in March, setting up his pro golf debut.
The launch might have occurred this week in Vancouver, but Dunkle was determined to play in one last tournament as an amateur – and as a Ute, whose growth has made his coach proud. As Clegg said, “It’ll be an awesome ending.”