There must be something in the water in Ireland. Whatever difficulties the Emerald Isle might have suffered at the height of the global economic downturn, it has remained flush with talented golfers at almost all levels of the game.
For example, did you know that more than a quarter of the men’s major championships that have taken place since July 2007 have been won by Irishmen? Only America, with 14 wins, has tasted victory more often in that time.
Even by its own high standards, however, this has been a particularly vintage year for Irish golf. Rory McIlroy has won twice on the PGA Tour and, in spite of a freak ankle injury, has consolidated his position as one of the top three players in the world. Padraig Harrington also sealed his first victory in almost seven years at the Honda Classic in March. Darren Clarke was named Ryder Cup captain in January, succeeding another Irishman, Paul McGinley. Shane Lowry, meanwhile, nabbed the biggest win of his career by heading off the best players in the world to win the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.
At amateur level, it has been an arguably even better season. Leona Maguire, one of the two golfing twins from County Cavan-born, is currently top of the women’s World Amateur Golf Ranking, whilst the men have had a spectacular year, capped with no fewer than five of them named to the ten-man Great Britain & Ireland side that romped to a record victory over the USA in September’s Walker Cup.
Heading those was Paul Dunne, the diminutive Wicklow golfer who, in July, became the first amateur since the great Bobby Jones in 1927 to lead the Open Championship after three rounds. Never mind the fact that he shot a final round of 78 to finish in a tie for 30th. What Paul Dunne did this year deserves to be classed as nothing short of exceptional.
Following that Walker Cup victory, he turned professional and, such have been the quality of his performances over the last 12 months in particular, there is a real expectation, not just hope, that he will become the next big thing in Irish golf. He admits that he’d like to be that guy but isn’t about to try and force it to happen just to keep other people happy.
"People can have high or low expectations all they like,” he says. “It’s not going to affect me. At the end of the day, the only person who can influence my career is the person hitting the shots, and that’s me. The only expectations I’m interested in are the ones that I set for myself. I respect everyone’s opinions, obviously, but I’ve got to take care of myself and set my own targets. That’s my plan.”
It's Sunday, July 19, 2015 and the time is approaching 7pm. It’s around about now that the R&A was expecting to present its latest ‘Champion Golfer of the Year’ on the first tee of the Old Course in St Andrews. Mother Nature had other ideas, of course, and her intervention has instead forced the Open Championship into its first Monday finish since 1988 and only the second in its 155-year history.
Twenty-two-year-old Paul Colum Dunne is standing over a three-foot putt to take the 54-hole lead. Just weeks earlier, he had nearly missed his tee time for the qualifying event at Woburn after miscalculating how long it would take him to get to the course. He made it - just - and subsequently won his way through to the championship proper. Now he’s here, on the 18th green of the oldest course in golf, playing in its oldest professional event and all that stands between him and a place in the final group is this putt.
In it goes. The crowd erupts. Dunne shakes the hand of his playing partner Louis Oosthuizen and walks off the green knowing he is just 18 holes from a legitimately sensational win.
“It was a bit of a surprise to be in that position,” he admits. “I suppose it would be a surprise to be leading any major at that stage, especially the Open, but I tell you, I wasn’t surprised to be 12-under. “There was a decent bit of wind out there but I knew I could shoot those scores. I just didn’t realise that everybody else wouldn’t shoot them, too. I mean, if you really want to simplify it, you could look at it this way: shoot four-under every day and you’ll win the championship. That’s the way I was looking at it. Just try to post something around the 68 mark each day and let everything else take care of itself.”
In the end, 68 became 78 on the final day and his chance at history went begging. Now, having had time to digest it all, how does he consider that incredible week in golf’s home town: a great experience or a missed opportunity?
“A bit of both,” he says. “At the start of the week, if you’d offered me four rounds, I’d have taken it but, in the context of the championship as a whole and what happened, it’s hard not to see it as a missed opportunity."
He adds that the support of the crowd played a big part in his performance over the first three rounds. “It was a very homely environment,” he nods. “I felt that I really had the support of the crowd. I knew a lot of people who were there watching and, in that respect, it was easy to enjoy and feed off their positive energy.”
He must have been nervous, though. “Oh yeah, but not as might as I might have been if you’d told me where I’d be,” he shrugs. “I wasn’t any more nervous than I would have been if I’d been leading the British Amateur Championship or something along those lines. I just tried to treat it like any other golf tournament, just with a lot more people around the greens.”
In the end, despite his remarkable efforts and headline-grabbing feats, Dunne’s final round unravelling didn’t only cost him the Claret Jug; it cost him the Silver Medal, too, American Jordan Niebrugge taking the low amateur spoils. Dunne, though, says, that he took something more valuable away from the week than a bit of metal.
“On the one hand, I know that there are things I need to work on improving so that I’m able to handle myself better when I’m next in that position, whilst on the other, I now know that I am capable of getting myself in contention for big events,” he explains. “It was a learning experience in two very different respects, so I can only hope that will stand me in good stead going forward.”
And that’s not the only good thing that came of the week. He laughs: “My Twitter followers went up like a clock!”
The following week, Dunne was back home in Ireland. With a rare week off in his packed schedule, he was visited by friends and family who wanted to pop in and pat him on the back for his strong St Andrews showing. He had, they all agreed, come a long way from the ten-year-old kid who took up the game at Graystones Golf Club.
The week after that, it was ‘back down to business’. He flew out to Slovakia to play in the European Amateur Championship where he caught up with his Irish teammates. “It was great to see them,” he smiles. “It was just like it always was. We’re good friends and I knew I could rely on them to keep everything normal.”
His phone rang often with various management companies looking to enquire about his plans but they all got the same answer. “I told them I wasn’t turning professional,” explains Dunne. “I told them I wanted to play in the Walker Cup and after that we’d see.”
Following that famous GB&I win at Royal Lytham and St Annes, he made the switch to the paid ranks and made his tournament debut in the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship where he finished in the top 20, banking a cheque for just over a47,500 in the process. The next week, he got into the British Masters and, again, made the cut. A tie for 25th earned him a further a39,487. Not bad going for a newly-turned professional who doesn’t even have a coach and describes his putting as ‘definitely streaky’. Still, his goals remain endearingly modest.
“I’m sticking to short-term targets for the moment and just concentrating on trying to get my European Tour card for next year,” he says. “It’s hard to look much further ahead than that because I don’t know where I’m going to be playing.
“If I have instant success, great. If not, I’m not the sort of person who’s going to live or die by how I play. I think that the people who matter most to me will like me either way whether I win or come last. I’m just excited to be getting the opportunity to try and play this game for a living.”
Paul Dunne in bunkered
This interview with Paul Dunne first appeared in issue 143 of bunkered (published: October 2015).