Cutler on top form to seal 'West' final glory
Paul Cutler (22) and Alan Dunbar were hotel room-mates throughout the West of Ireland Championship but all the sharing stopped during yesterday's final at sun-splashed Rosses Point as Cutler, ground-out a comprehensive 4& 2 victory over his young fellow-Ulsterman and friend.
The significance of this performance by Cutler cannot be underestimated as he sweeps into his final season as an amateur with legitimate hopes of making September's Walker Cup at Royal Aberdeen.
It's nicely timed too, coming days before Cutler opens his defence of the Lytham Trophy on Friday.
"This definitely is a great way to kick-start the year," he enthused. "Especially going to Lytham. With the Walker Cup later in the year, I need to play solid in England as well."
Cutler also roomed with Dunbar at Lytham last year and the two Ireland team-mates are such good pals, the likely prospect of meeting head-on in yesterday's final was never discussed.
"There wasn't a word mentioned about it the whole time," Cutler insisted yesterday, though he admitted the subject had been on his mind, like the proverbial elephant in the bedroom.
"I knew we were on for the final if we kept getting through and I'll admit, it was at the back of my mind all week," he explained. "But I never said anything to Alan. He's a good lad. I've played a lot of golf with him and shared a lot of rooms. We get on well."
Cutler's eyes lit up as he perused the many legendary Radisson Blu West of Ireland champions.
"Padraig Harrington's won it, Rory's (McIlroy's) done it twice and (Garth) McGimpsey four times. Mikko Ilonen's there as well. There's a lot of good names on that trophy," said the Portstewart hero, who actually cut short McIlroy's bid for a West of Ireland hat-trick in the 2007 semi-final before losing to Joe Lyons.
Cutler's only other match play championship win came in the 2007 Ulster Boys, though an impressive list of strokeplay titles include the 2009 East of Ireland.
Dunbar, who hails from Graeme McDowell's club Rathmore, is 15 months younger than Cutler.
Remarkably, the extra know-how and experience the latter acquired in that relatively short space of time actually showed yesterday.
Also a Walker Cup hopeful, Dunbar has many feathers in his cap. He won the St Andrews Links Trophy in 2009; holds the Irish Amatuer Open and North of Ireland titles and showed such astonishing mastery on the links during a 4&3 semi-final victory over Muskerry's Niall Gorey, he was widely fancied for the decider.
"I've never seen anything like that before," said Gorey, 31, who fell four behind as Dunbar ripped through the front nine in six-under.
Putting like a man possessed, he picked-up his seventh birdie at 12 but, as Dunbar admitted: "the birdies simply ran out" in the final.
Conversely, Cutler and Gary McDermott, carrying the host club's hopes of a first Co Sligo local in the final since Cecil Ewing in 1958, played poorly in their semi-final.
"It probably was a good thing," Cutler said of that 2&1 win. "I got all the bad golf out of the way."
If Dunbar and Cutler were hewn from the same northern rock, they're as different as the opposite ends of Ben Bulben. Cutler is compact and, as a cracking ball-striker, conceals great power in his relatively light frame.
His tousle-haired opponent yesterday is taller, almost rangy, with a more expansive swing.
One suspects the occasion took its toll on Dunbar as he struggled to find a fairway on the front nine and then fell right out of synch on the greens, disastrously three-putting four times in the final. Two down after three-stabs at the third and fourth holes, he rebounded with an eagle three at the fifth before, missing from just 30 inches for a half at eight.
Though Dunbar won 11 with birdie as Cutler three-stabbed, a pushed 3-wood off the tee, followed by a poorly struck approach from the rough at the long 12th, handed the initiative straight back to his opponent.
Cutler, critically, then went three ahead with a neat up-and-down from a greenside bunker at 13 as Dunbar three-stabbed yet again.
After failing to apply the coup de grace from 18 inches at 15, Cutler formally became the first leading-qualifier since Michael McDermott in 2001, to win the championship-proper as Dunbar failed to make par after missing the green at the short 16th.