Min Woo Lee has taken a big step closer to Olympic selection after his 2024 debut on the US PGA Tour as college student Nick Dunlap shocked the world by becoming the first amateur winner on tour for 33 years.
Adam Scott may have declared the world rankings were moving close to irrelevance given the lack of points on offer to LIV stars, including Cameron Smith, but they remain key to selection and Lee is on the verge of going past the British Open winner to be Australia’s second-highest ranked player behind Jason Day, with two spots available in Paris.
Lee, who was fitted up for his Olympic uniform in Sydney last December, as was Smith, lamented one poor round at his first event for the year at the American Express in California where birdies were the only currency.
The 25-year-old West Australian finished tied for 21st, at 20-under par, nine shots behind the amateur Dunlap, who shocked the sport by taking down a star-studded field to secure a stunning one-shot win at the Pete Dye Stadium Course in La Quinta.
Dunlap, 21, who plays on the University of Alabama golf team, became the first amateur to win on the PGA Tour in 33 years, and his first prize of $2.2m instead went to South African Christiaan Bezuidenhout, who finished second.
Phil Mickelson was the last amateur to win a US PGA Tour event.
Ranked 37 at the start of the event, just seven spots behind Smith, who had slid to 30 after failing to ignite during the Australian summer in his quest for rare ranking points, Lee is only a couple of good results away from leapfrogging his countryman ahead of the Paris Games.
The top 15 players on the official world golf rankings will earn automatic qualification, with another two per country for players ranked from 16 onwards until the full field of 60 is reached.
Hurting Smith more is that the rankings use a two-year rolling average and given he earnt points in just eight events in 2023, compared with Lee’s 24, the younger Aussie is in pole position to snare a spot.
Smith could yet make Paris, pending a decision from Day, who has jumped to 18 in the world but has not shown an inclination towards the Olympics, having skipped the Rio Games in 2016 when he was qualified.
Both Lee and Smith have declared a strong desire to get to the Olympics. Lee could join his sister, world No.4 Minjee, while Smith wants to double-up having played with Marc Leishman at the Covid-impacted Tokyo Games in 2021.
Playing in Dubai last week, Scott said the absence of LIV players was continuing to create issues with the rankings system, which is used to build fields for the majors as well as Olympic selection.
“I think they are in a tricky spot at the moment, like everything in professional golf is kind of up for debate and discussion,” said Scott, who finished in a tie for seventh behind Rory McIlroy.
“They need to find a good system. Otherwise, I fear the world rankings can become irrelevant.”
Day finished in a tie for 34th at the American Express, with Harrison Endycott tied for 39th.