PINEHURST, N.C. — If it feels like Brad Dalke has been a much-celebrated amateur golfer for a while now, well that’s because he has. It was August 2010 when he first gained national attention, committing to play college golf at the University of Oklahoma … as a rising eighth grader.
Nine years later, with his time at OU having come to an end this summer (complete with a national championship in his four years in Norman), Dalke is making his amateur swansong at the U.S. Amateur, his fifth appearance in the championship. Before the end of the month, he’ll be competing as a professional in Nebraska at a pre-qualifier for the Korn Ferry Tour Qualifying School.
“I guess it’s kind of bittersweet,” Dalke, 22, said after winning his first-round match on Wednesday at Pinehurst No. 2 against Scotland’s Sandy Scott. “Amateur golf is so much fun. Not really even the golf side, it will be the memories I’m taking with me of traveling with my friends. I think that’s the part I’ll be missing the most. But I’ve been playing junior golf and amateur golf for so long, I’m kind of ready to move on to the next level and see what I can do on the pro side of things.”
Yet what the future holds is unclear. When he’s playing his best golf, Dalke is an elite talent, as witnessed by reaching the finals of the 2016 U.S. Amateur at Oakland Hills and holing the winning putt to clinch the Sooners’ 2017 NCAA team title. But during his senior season in 2018-’19, he struggled with his ball-striking, so much so that he decided he wasn’t ready to turn pro when school ended in May.
“I thought there was no point going out there and [struggling],” Dalke said, noting that he was particularly lost with his driver. “If you’re going to work on some things, might as well do that in amateur golf where you’re not wasting money for it, wasting your own money.”
In June, Dalke began working with instructor George Gankas in search of more consistency with his swing. Dalke talks to Gankas regularly on the phone (they chatted after he advanced into match play on Tuesday night), and went to meet with him in person in Los Angeles last month.
In preparation for Pinehurst, Gankas had Dalke, who has more of a football player’s frame than a golfer, working on a drill that put a pause at the top of his backswing, a la Hideki Matsuyama. It was producing such good results on the range that Dalke says he’s taken it with him on the course this week. “Might look a little funny, but I don’t care,” he said. “It feels really comfortable.”
Oklahoma men’s coach Ryan Hybl says that Dalke’s approach this past year, even as he’s struggled with his swing, has always remained positive. “He's one of those guys where it only takes a little bit to get him going and build his confidence,” Hybl said. “And once he gets going, he can take off. It’s just trying to get that spark.”
As he’s worked to get his game into shape to compete at the professional level, Dalke has watched with curiosity as a handful of his college peers have had immediate success in PGA Tour events. Yes, Matthew Wolff attended OU’s sworn enemy, Oklahoma State, but Dalke and he are good friends (Wolff was the one who encouraged him to talk to Gankas). Same with OSU’s Viktor Hovland. And Dalke has competed against Collin Morikawa since the two were junior golfers.
Seeing Wolff and Morikawa win PGA Tour titles this summer has been encouraging to Dalke. “I think it makes a lot of us think we can be out there, too,” he said. “I know when I’m at the top of my game, I can play with anybody.”
At the same time, Dalke is proceeding with caution. He knows he can’t change his mindset based solely on their success, understanding how rare it is for college players to jump right to the pro ranks and immediately find themselves contending on the PGA Tour.
“I think the first couple of years will be a grind. It’s tough to go up to the PGA Tour,” said Dalke, who expects to move from Norman to Scottsdale in the fall. “I’m just looking forward to the time when I actually get up there and can play on the PGA Tour every week. It’s been a dream of mine since I was little.”
Moving on isn’t just bittersweet for Dalke, but his family as well. His mom, Kay, says she knows the youngest of her seven children has been playing amateur golf for what feels like forever, yet the time seems to have flown by. “He’s matured so much,” Kay said. “I think we’re all excited to see what happens next.”
Making his amateur finale even more sentimental is the fact that Dalke’s sister Kathleen, 10 years his senior, on his bag. It’s just the second time she’s caddied for Dalke, the other coming at the U.S. Junior Amateur in 2015.
“It’s fun,” Dalke said. “She’s good to know when to talk and when to let all my anger out.”
Should he progress farther in the match-play bracket—he defeated Parker Gilliam in second round on Thursday morning, and faces Australia’s Karl Vilips in a third-round match in Thursday afternoon—more of the Dalke clan will come to North Carolina. But first things first.
Regardless of how the week plays out, Dalke says he’ll be content knowing he got everything he could out of his game as an amateur golfer.
“I wouldn’t change a thing,” Dalke said.
Originally Appeared on Golf Digest