Friday 19 January 2018

2016 Ones to watch: Playing the long game - Open hero to soar in 2016

Paul Dunne, golfer

Golfer Paul Dunne
Golfer Paul Dunne

Graham Clifford

In a game dominated by so few, the emergence of Greystones' Paul Dunne during the 2015 Open Championship at St Andrews was a breath of fresh air for world golf.

The confident Irish amateur followed up an opening round of 69 with an identical second round score and, remarkably, on the third day of the major he hit a 66 to make sure that he'd form part of the last pairing to take to the tee on the final day of the Open 2015.

From obscurity to the top of the leader board on golf's biggest stage. To look at and listen to Dunne though, you wouldn't know it. He remained calm, polite and good-humoured throughout.

"It's surreal. I'm leading the Open, but I can easily believe that I shot the three scores that I shot. If we were playing an amateur event here, I wouldn't be too surprised by the scores," said Dunne. "It's just lucky it happens to be in the biggest event in the world. Hopefully I can do it again, but whether I do or not, I'll survive either way."

Aged just 22 at the time, the Wicklow man became the first amateur since 1927 to lead the Open Championship after 54 holes while also setting a tournament record for lowest 54-hole score by an amateur. Records fell every time he took to the fairway.

When asked by reporters what it felt like to lead such a massive world tournament, a relaxed Dunne said: "My first thought was is anyone at home going to take a picture of it on the computer screen and send it to me later? It was cool to see my name on the screen. When I'm 70-years-old sitting in a bar with a pint I can tell someone I led the Open. Hopefully I can do it a few more times in the future."

His list of admirers grew as the hours and days ticked on. The world's media wondered how Ireland could produce yet another talent of this nature. And ahead of the last round, Padraig Harrington waxed lyrical about Dunne's amazing achievements.

"It is phenomenal. His [Dunne] first-round score was a tremendous achievement, then to back it up with another 69 in the second round was gutsy, and now to go out there and be leading, you can't take that away from him. That is as rare as it comes," said Harrington.

On the final day of the Open Dunne was paired with South African Louis Oosthuizen. After an unfortunate start, he would go on to shoot a 78 and finish on -6, making sure he ended up in the top 30. It was a remarkable achievement by the youngster and quickly people were talking about him as the next big thing to come out of Irish golf.

Having qualified for the Open Championship for a second successive year by winning entry through the amateur qualifiers at Woburn, Dunne's star was well and truly rising as he entered 2015. A year on, he's already being tipped for great things on the European Tour.

Dunne played college golf at University of Alabama (which Graeme McDowell also attended) and graduated with a degree in business finance. As a junior, he was named the 2014 Conference USA Golfer of the Year.

Following his endeavours at the 2015 Open, the option to turn professional raised its head and Dunne grabbed the opportunity with both hands.

But in a dream-like finish to his amateur career, he holed the winning putt at the Walker Cup as the Great Britain and Ireland team defeated their American counterparts at Royal Lytham and St Annes.

Dunne's first professional tournament in October 2015 saw him secure a tie for 19th at the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship - in the process collecting a cheque for €47,556. It also proved that Dunne belonged in the upper tier of golf's elite and that his showing at the Open Championship was no flash in the pan.

He said after that first professional tournament that money is not his motivation for turning pro.

"If I keep focusing on getting better and progressing, then money should take care of itself over time," he said.

And progression continued. In mid-November the talented Irishman secured his European Tour card for next season after a final round 72 at the gruelling qualifying school in Girona.

Dunne had to come through the entire qualifying process to secure his card and became the only Irish competitor, out of 34, to do so.

After finishing in a tie for 44th at the Australian PGA Championship, staged at the Royal Pines Resort in Queensland in early December, Dunne's earnings since turning professional just three months ago have already reached €98,972.

Dunne missed the cut in the Alfred Dunhill Championship in South Africa prior to going to Australia, so his prize money from the Aussie PGA has him at 84th in the European rankings.

And now facing into his first full year as a pro, with his precious tour card tucked safely in his back pocket, the world is Dunne's oyster.

He'll have to contend with a tough playing and travelling schedule in the year ahead, but the Greystones man has already proved he's a hard worker. If he can continue his form into 2016, then a first tour win may well be on the cards. During the Open Championship, Dunne spoke of the huge encouragement he received from the likes of Graeme McDowell and Shane Lowry amongst others.

If he's to reach his potential and become another potent Irish golfer on the world stage, then continued support and guidance from those more experienced fellow countrymen could be a major asset for Dunne. Confident, talented and calm, Dunne will be keen to show he's no one-hit wonder in 2016.

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