Wednesday 18 October 2017

Eamonn Sweeney: Dunne's win an antidote to an age of cynicism

Self-effacing Greystones golfer a breath of fresh air at a time when brashness is so commonplace

Ireland’s Paul Dunne celebrates with his caddie Darren Reynolds after chipping in on the 18th hole to win the British Masters at Close House Golf Club. Photo: Getty Images
Ireland’s Paul Dunne celebrates with his caddie Darren Reynolds after chipping in on the 18th hole to win the British Masters at Close House Golf Club. Photo: Getty Images

Eamonn Sweeney

Perhaps no golfer has ever won their first European Tour event as dramatically as Paul Dunne did at Close House. How could they have?

There he was with his ball off the 18th green, a bunker either side of him and an undeniable frisson running through the crowd.

Dunne might have been two shots clear of Rory McIlroy but if he botched this pitch a play-off loomed. Anything better than a bogey four which would enable him to edge the British Masters by one shot seemed unlikely.

The Greystones man took his second shot, the ball flew and dropped and rolled and didn't stop rolling until it nestled in the hole, giving Dunne a round of 61, a 20-under par total for the four rounds, a tournament record low score and a cheque for half a million quid.

Cue pandemonium. A finale like this felt too far-fetched for a video game let alone a Hollywood movie. Bagger Vance and your man from 'Tin Cup' suddenly seemed like characters from the duller reaches of social realism.

It's not a huge surprise that Dunne has won a European Tour event. It seemed a distinct possibility when he led the British Open after three rounds as an amateur two years ago and even more likely when he was beaten in a play-off at the Trophee Hassan II in Morocco back in April.

But it wasn't just that spectacular finish which made this victory a truly remarkable way for the 24-year-old to get off the mark.

Closing

The closing holes of the tournament might have been designed expressly to test the nerve of a gifted young golfer.

Holding a three-shot lead with six holes to play in a tournament of this standing would have been nerve-wracking enough for a player who turned professional less than two years ago. Then McIlroy decided to make things much tougher. Much, much tougher.

Earlier in the British Masters he had looked in danger of missing the cut but now McIlroy caught fire.

Five birdies in six holes pulled him within one stroke of Dunne. Bounding from tee to tee and driving with a ferocity which made Close House look like a pitch and putt course, the former world number one was the very model of a man with the bit between his teeth.

Dunne's reaction to his lead being down to the minimum? He struck a 320-yard drive to the edge of the 17th green, chipped to within four feet and, as he had all day, made the putt look routine as a tap-in at a pick-up game between buddies. It was, Dunne said afterwards, the moment when he felt he might be safe.

Yet perhaps the most crucial moments of all had come a few holes earlier, just after Dunne had seized control. He only hit five of the first 15 fairways and between the 12th and 15th there were three occasions when he was off the green in two.

If he was going to wilt, this was when it would have happened. Each time, his remarkable short game saw him through.

The chips were precise, the putts bore an air of inevitability. McIlroy would have to wrest the title from the grasp of his fellow Irishman because Dunne would not give him any assistance.

Coming into the back nine McIlroy had thought 17-under would be enough to win it. Dunne had other ideas.

This victory will alert the wider sporting public to Paul Dunne's remarkable gifts. But they've known about those gifts for quite a while at Greystones Golf Club, ever since he was winning the Wicklow, Connacht and Ulster U-15 titles a decade ago before becoming the first player to retain the Irish Boys title.

That stellar underage career led to a stint competing in the tough world of American colleges golf for University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Then came that British Open display, now revealed to be no flash in the pan. Just when the pipeline seemed to be running dry Dunne has joined that gallant band of Pádraig Harrington, Graeme McDowell, Darren Clarke, Paul McGinley, McIlroy and Shane Lowry.

There is a self-effacing quality to Dunne which will, I suspect, make him a very popular addition to the ranks of Irish elite sportsmen.

Barry Massey of Greystones has spoken about how, just before that breakthrough British Open, Dunne donated his old Irish team gear as competition prizes for the club's youngsters and took part in a chipping competition with them.

"The nice thing about that," Massey recalled, "is that the majority of the children didn't know who he was and, more to the point, he didn't tell them."

It will be a bit more difficult for Dunne to maintain his anonymity from now on yet the story seems to capture something valuable about the man. After the type of finale which would have sent most sportsmen into, 'I am a golden god' mode, his first post-tournament thought was to thank the owners of the course for letting the golfers play on it.

Just over a month ago he called a penalty on himself at the Paul Lawrie Matchplay tournament which ultimately led to his elimination.

Dunne might well be a genius but he also seems to be that other rare and valuable thing, a gentleman.

At a time when brashness, self-praise and a belief that cynicism is a necessary part of a winning mentality seem rife in Irish sport, there is something refreshing about Paul Dunne.

He obviously possesses a steely competitive spirit. You need it in a sport which punishes failures of nerve more cruelly than any other. Yet he also shows you can be a winner without boasting or being a jackass about it.

This was a great weekend for Irish golf. It's been a while since McIlroy finished with such gusto and Lowry's second top-ten result in his last three tournaments may indicate that his slide is nearing an end. Yet, ultimately the day belonged to Dunne. He will win again and in bigger tournaments. But I don't think he'll ever again have a finish quite like this one.

This was one of a kind, one to really warm the heart on a windy, wintry Sunday afternoon.

Irish Independent

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