Browne dreaming of glorious East return after spell in wilderness
It's a long way from Kazakhstan and Kansas to Baltray, but former European Tour professional Stephen Browne and US collegiate star Paul Dunne have travelled very different routes to tee it up in the East of Ireland Amateur Open at County Louth today.
Defending champion Dunne (21) has just completed his second year at Graeme McDowell's alma mater, the University of Birmingham Alabama, winning twice this season before finishing just a shot behind world amateur No 1 Patrick Rodgers in 19th spot in this week's NCAA individual championship in Hutchinson, Kansas.
But for Browne (40), it's been nearly six years since he last played a 72-hole tournament, saying goodbye to the professional ranks after he missed the cut in the 2008 Kazakhstan Open, scene of his biggest pro success back in 2005.
Now reinstated as an amateur, the Hermitage man hasn't played in the 'East' since he finished fourth behind Ken Kearney in 2001 – a performance that truly launched him on the road to a professional career that brought him two Challenge Tour wins and a spell on the main European Tour.
There were several highs, but the tour lows eventually took their toll and Browne, who is now happily selling financial planning software and awaiting the arrival of his third child with his wife Elaine in August.
"Kazakhstan was wild, but Baltray is the furthest east I'll be playing golf this year," Browne said with a laugh. "I said I'd have a dart at it for old time's sake."
His decision to return is a knee-jerk reaction to having 39 points in Hermitage recently and getting cut to plus one, which was just enough to qualify for Baltray for what he insists will be a one-off championship appearance.
"We have two kids and we're having another one in August, so I said I'd probably not get the chance to do it next year," said the Dubliner.
"The East is only up the road, it's only three days and I love Baltray. It's where it all started for me anyway."
Finishing fourth in the 2001 East propelled Browne onto the Irish team alongside the likes of Graeme McDowell and Michael Hoey. They reached the final of the European Team Championship in Sweden that year and Browne went on to win the European Individual Amateur in Denmark and reach the final of the South before turning professional.
Can he win? "I don't think so," he said. "I am so long out of competitive golf now. I haven't played in anything for five years."
While Browne is hoping to rediscover some of the old magic, Dunne is also praying that the billiard table Baltray greens will work wonders for his putting.
"For the last five or six months I have been struggling on the greens," said Dunne, Ireland's top-ranked amateur at 48th in the world. "But I've always liked the greens at Baltray."
Internationals Reeve Whitson, Dermot McElroy, Cormac Sharvin, Rory McNamara, Jack Hume, Gavin Moynihan and Richard O'Donovan have decided to chase bigger world ranking points in the clashing Scottish Amateur Open.
However, there are plenty of title contenders, with West Waterford's Gary Hurley, Balbriggan's Robbie Cannon and 2012 champion Chris Selfridge, the reigning North of Ireland champion, back from university in Toledo to chase the coveted title again.