Sport Golf

Thursday 22 March 2018

Dermot Gilleece: Amateurs' lost bounty should go back home

Give cash to grassroots rather than lining pros' pockets

‘The Dunne story had become very much an Irish story, and a player of lesser qualities could have projected a damaging image of his native place’
‘The Dunne story had become very much an Irish story, and a player of lesser qualities could have projected a damaging image of his native place’
ST ANDREWS, SCOTLAND - JULY 20: Zach Johnson of the United States lines up a putt on the 18th green during the final round of the 144th Open Championship at The Old Course on July 20, 2015 in St Andrews, Scotland. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Dermot Gilleece

Had the five amateur survivors been eligible for prize money in the Open Championship at St Andrews last Monday, they would have collected an estimated €635,834 between them. And Paul McGinley would like to have seen them accept the money - before passing it on to their respective national bodies.

He also believes that these elite players should be attired in their international apparel with corresponding golf bags. "I think it's wrong that manufacturers are getting free advertising from amateur players," said next year's leader of the Irish men's and women's golf teams at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

The top five amateurs at the Old Course, with their possible prize money, were: T6 (271) Jordan Niebrugge (US), €271,205; T12 (279) Ashley Chesters (England), Ollie Schniederjans (US), €143,732 each; T30 (282) Paul Dunne (Ireland), €55,925; T65 (286) Roman Langasque (France), €21,240. It should be noted that these figures for their respective positions on the leaderboard are enhanced by a greater share of the spoils for the professionals, which was announced by the R&A last Sunday - when there was the possibility of Dunne scooping the record top prize of €1,591,255.

It would simply be distributed through the rest of the field, they explained, as does all prize money that would go to amateurs.

"Why should the pros get additional money that they didn't actually earn?" McGinley went on. "We could have had Paul Dunne's money, for instance, going to the GUI, with possibly a share to his American university as a sort of 'thank you' for the investment they made in his career. And, obviously, the same would apply to the two Americans, to England's Ashley Chesters and to the French player.

"I'm sure a whole new approach to the involvement of amateurs in the Open could be reached through negotiations with the R&A. Wouldn't it be great to see players wearing the jerseys of their national golfing authority, particularly when challenging for the Open, as we saw last weekend? I know it's something I'd love to have experienced."

Against this background, it did seem odd to see Dunne attired in the same Under Armour gear as Jordan Spieth. The Greystones player even highlighted the fact that, looking at the familiar logo on his cap, autograph-hunters mistook him for the world no.2, until they got close enough to see his face.

"In the Ryder Cup, the guys all use Ryder Cup golf bags and Ryder Cup clothes, but they use their own golf clubs and wear their own shoes," continued last year's victorious European captain. "Anything that's deemed equipment they're entitled to use. But there should be certain rules for amateurs.

"I thought it was nice to see Chesters in an England sweater. It made me think of what his governing body could do with the prize money he might have earned, reinvesting it in the game at grassroots level. And I'm sure the USGA could have found good use for the sizeable cheque Niebrugge might have got. Where appropriate, you could also involve a player's university. I recall noting the Stanford University cap that Tiger Woods wore when competing as an amateur in the 1996 US Masters."

As it happens, Schniederjans has already turned professional since the Open and has been competing in this weekend's Canadian Open. But his American colleague is certain to be involved in the Walker Cup at Royal Lytham in September, when Dunne looks to be a certainty on the British and Irish side, too.

Whatever the decision of the R&A selectors, he has reason to be immensely proud of the way he handled himself in very difficult circumstances last Monday. From the time he became a most unlikely joint-leader, the level of expectation, especially on social media, bordered on the ridiculous. Sample: "Is Paul Dunne the next Bobby Jones?"

Then came a start to his final round which would have unnerved even a battle-hardened campaigner. And he dealt with it superbly. Though we had no right to expect anything special from him as an amateur player, in terms of self-control and general demeanour, he did himself and his country proud by the way he handled those difficult opening holes.

The Dunne story had become very much an Irish story, and a player of lesser qualities could have projected a damaging image of his native place. As it happened, he won the unstinting support of sympathetic galleries, right to the end, when a miss-hit approach had him hacking from rough at the back of the 18th green on the way to a closing bogey.

By way of giving some perspective to Dunne's travails, I can recall a very similar St Andrews story in the 1984 Open Championship. That was when an unknown 23-year-old Australian professional by the name of Ian Baker-Finch - he was referred to in sections of the media as Ian Baker-Who - found himself tied for the lead with defending champion, Tom Watson, entering the final round.

Just like Dunne, 31 years on, he was in the last two-ball of the day, and proceeded to make a considerably greater mess of the opening hole than the 22-year-old from Greystones. After a three-wood from the tee, Baker-Finch chose to hit a soft nine-iron for a 120-yard second shot, with the intention of eliminating too much spin.

It was some years later before he discovered that the front of the first green had been over-watered accidentally the previous night. And the upshot was that his approach shot spun back ruinously into the Swilcan Burn for a shattering impact on his fragile confidence.

And the outcome? Baker-Finch, already a three-time winner in professional ranks at the time, proceeded to card a final round of 79, one stroke more than Dunne. "I reckon a lot of people are waiting to see if I'm a flash in the pan," was his wry reaction.

Dunne, who might be confronted by similar doubts, will be aware that, by way of response, the Australian proceeded to capture the 1991 Open at Royal Birkdale in the most thrilling style - although he conceded: "The Open at St Andrews is the Major of all Majors. Definitely."

Which brings us to the Old Course and its continued position as a key venue on the Open rota. Quite apart from the considerable moisture which descended upon it before and during last weekend, it no longer has the brown links look we saw back in 1990, when Nick Faldo famously holed out for an eagle two on the 18th with a classic pitch and run from an eight-iron second shot.

The demands of heavy tourist traffic have led the greenkeepers, however reluctantly, to pursue a fertilised, green look which inevitably eliminates elements of its original firmness and sublety. And when you have rain like last weekend's, soft greens create the setting for a birdie bonanza.

Which is largely why Zach Johnson (pictured below), a true master of the wedge and putter, the so-called money shots, emerged victorious. It also explains why we saw so few pure links shots played over the five days of what became the longest Open in history.

Having predicted a benefit for bombers such as Dustin Johnson, McGinley saw one of the shorter hitters in the professional game lift the coveted claret jug. "Two things changed, and I should have accounted for them," he acknowledged. "One was that the wind never really blew from the west, as it normally does, which is in off the left on the way out. Instead, in a south-west wind and with the ball spinning back on incredibly soft greens, you had guys shooting five, six or even seven under on the front nine.

"Then the back nine on Monday was so tough that the big hitters had no advantage in that they couldn't reach the long 14th, nor overpower the 17th. So, a huge emphasis on wedge play was right up Johnson's street.

"By design, the only two protections a links has is firmness of terrain, and the wind. And when you take away both of those, as happened at St Andrews, you're going to get the sort of scoring we had last weekend. But should its place on a five-year cycle be maintained? Absolutely.

"I think it would be a shame if St Andrews was taken from the rota, or its frequency curtailed. It is what it is. Unique. And with firm greens and a 20mph wind it can still present a great test."

Of course, we all knew, deep down, on Monday morning that an Irish amateur couldn't win golf's greatest prize. But for dreamers of wild dreams, there can't be a better setting than this place of golfing pilgrimage, which remains a glorious monument to the origins of the game.

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