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Nick Dunlap among the stars at Bay Hill and playing as a single

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Nick Dunlap finished in just under four hours at the Arnold Palmer Invitational on Thursday, which would have made it seem like any other round at Bay Hill with one exception.

He was playing alone. He had the first tee time. The entire course was in front of him. The only company he kept was his caddie.

“A little weird,” Dunlap said with a smile after a birdie-birdie finish led to an even-par 72.

The Arnold Palmer Invitational is a signature event, which along with a $20 million purse has a small field comprised of only the top players and those with recent good play. That would have added to 70 for Bay Hill, except Tony Finau chose not to play.

And with PGA Tour pledging to use twosomes for signature events, a 69-man field meant one player had to go off by himself. That's not unusual on the weekend in the Eastern time zone, when an odd-number of players make the cut.

But the first round?

Dunlap didn't seem to mind. He found himself playing more deliberately than normal. When he first stepped on the tee at the par-3 second — his caddie a few paces behind him — it was just over two minutes before he hit his shot. He used that time to figure out the wind and other factors. It's typically the hardest par 3 on the course.

“I still stuck to my routine,” he said. “A couple of times if we didn't know what the wind was going to do or it was a difficult putt, we were able to take a little more time.”

Friday might be tougher. Seventeen twosomes will be in front of him, and Dunlap will be in the middle of the field on his own.

But then, Dunlap has a different perspective than most at Bay Hill. Only two months ago, the U.S. Amateur champion was a 20-year-old sophomore at Alabama when he won The American Express, the first amateur in 33 years to win on the PGA Tour. A big part of him is just happy to be here, playing for $20 million purses seven times this season.

“Honestly, to put it in perspective, I was playing foursomes in college,” he said. “And it's a lot better playing as a single.”

There usually is an option for a single to play with a non-competing marker — it's mandatory at the Masters — except the PGA Tour is moving away from that. Dunlap said he really didn't have the option of having a head pro or amateur play with him, and he didn't necessarily want one.

And this wasn't a random decision to put him out first. Dunlap was the only player in his category (current season PGA Tour winners), so he was the single. The other winners this year were eligible through the current FedEx Cup list.

Oddly enough, Dunlap did play with a non-competing marker at The American Express, but only because it was a pro-am format and the other tour pro, Wilson Furr, had to withdraw. Someone had to fill in as the amateur's partner.

Dunlap shot 60 that day, and carried that to a surprising PGA Tour win.

Bay Hill is no La Quinta, however. This is one of the stronger tests on the PGA Tour. Dunlap said the extra time he had over shots came in handy.

What didn't help was the start. His tee shot failed to clear the water on No. 3. After a drop, his 6-iron hit off the rocks and into the water. Another drop. He did well to escape with triple bogey, and then needed to regroup while playing as a single.

“When you're playing well, it can be beneficial,” he said. “It's a little more difficult when I got off to a tough start. You had to slow yourself down.”

He managed well, going out in 40 and coming back for a 72, a respectable score at Bay Hill. Another good round and he won't have to play as a single on Saturday.

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AP golf: https://apnews.com/hub/golf