Rookie Nick Dunlap, veteran David Skinns highlight group of Player Championship first-timers

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — One of the cool things the PGA Tour does every year at its flagship event, the Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass, is put a spotlight on the players competing in the event for the first time.

On the day before the opening round, the players making their maiden voyage around one of the most famous golf courses in the world are showcased on a spacious and well-groomed lawn outside the decadent clubhouse for interviews.

There are 22 first-timers who’ll tee it up in Thursday’s opening round, and almost all of them are young players, wet behind the ears and wide-eyed.

Nick Dunlap, who won a PGA Tour event as an amateur earlier this year, is playing in his first Players Championship. Getty Images

Wednesday there was a beautiful contrast in two of those players that speaks to what golf is all about, in that it’s as much for the old as the young.

In one corner of the lawn was Nick Dunlap, a 20-year-old Alabama native who, while still in school at University of Alabama and a member of the golf team, surprisingly won the American Express in January as an amateur. He became the first amateur to win a PGA Tour event since Phil Mickelson won the 1991 Northern Telcom Open.

In another corner of the lawn was 42-year-old David Skinns, a married father three from England who’s played on more mini-tours than he can count.

Dunlap turned pro as soon as he won the American Express, a feat that gave him his PGA Tour card for three years and qualified him for big events like this week’s Players.

Skinns, who won three times on the Korn Ferry Tour after having success in Canada, has been a pro for longer than he can remember and said it’s all he knows.

“I guess that’s the beauty of golf,’’ Skinns told The Post. “There’s no reason why I can’t get better at 42. There’s no reason I can’t compete. I’ve still got the [swing and ball] speed. That’s the beauty of golf. I can be sitting here with Jake Knapp [who won the Mexico Open] and Nick. We’re on the same playing field.’’

David Skinns, 42, is playing in his first Players Championship. Getty Images

Dunlap recalled the thoughts rattling around in his head the Saturday before he won the Amex, knowing he was in contention to win the next day. Stay in school and keep playing with his Alabama teammates or turn pro?

“The Saturday night, it was hard not to look at it, like, ‘If I win, I get this, this and this,’ ” Dunlap recalled Wednesday. “On Saturday, it was like, ‘If I win, I’m going to turn pro.’ And then it happened and it was like, ‘Holy crap, I can actually leave college and leave my brothers and my teammates.’

“It took me a second to actually realize what was going on. It was a clear decision for me, but also a difficult one. As easy as the decision to follow my dream was, it was very hard for me to leave them midseason.’’

Skinns called Dunlap’s dilemma “a great decision to have to make.’’

That brought into question how often Skinns faced the decision on how long to continue pursuing his PGA Tour dream.

“I’ve never not felt like this is what I’m supposed to do,’’ Skinns said. “I’ve always kind of had that belief. I’m a professional golfer. That’s what I do. There’s never been any thought about ‘what else?’ It’s the only thing I can do.

“I think the fact that my good has always been good enough to win at every level, that’s helped me stay out here. I had my first breakthrough win on Korn Ferry in 2018, which helped me believe I can play out here and win out here.’’

Skinns went to the University of Tennessee and now lives in Atlanta with his wife, who’s from Pittsburgh, and his three kids. He’s become a mad Braves and Falcons fan who’s delighted by the Kirk Cousins signing. He, too, is also a Steelers fan by marriage proxy.

Dunlap’s family consists very much of his Alabama teammates and coach Jay Seawell.

“It’s really nice for me to go back and hang with them,’’ he said. “It’s a comfortable place for me. They’re brothers to me, and Jay Seawell has always been a father figure to me. Any time he’s around me, whether it’s out here or back in Alabama, it gives me a sense of calm.’’

Dunlap called his whirlwind journey “crazy,’’ but added, “It’s been something that has been very rewarding for me for some of the work I’ve put in. It’s also put me in a lot of different situations that I never had to deal with.

“This is ultimately where I wanted to be,’’ Dunlap said. “I just didn’t think I’d be here at [age] 20.’’

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