Tuesday 23 January 2018

Dermot Gilleece: Drawing inspiration from those who blazed trail across the world

Paul Dunne: ‘Missing the South African Open was terribly disappointing' Photo:Sportsfile
Paul Dunne: ‘Missing the South African Open was terribly disappointing' Photo:Sportsfile

Dermot Gilleece

Four days after marking the Epiphany, the words come to mind of a child from Dublin's inner city on Gay Byrne's radio show, memorably describing how the Wise Men brought Baby Jesus gifts of "gold, Frankenstein and a mirror". More tangible rewards, in the form of increased amounts of hard currency, await this year's campaigners on golf's professional tours.

By way of emphasising the global nature of the modern game, European rookie Paul Dunne is currently in Johannesburg, where a stomach virus forced him out of the South African Open. And in a different hemisphere, Pádraig Harrington, as a seasoned veteran of 44, is making a debut appearance in the Hyundai Tournament of Champions at Kapalua, Hawaii, on the strength of a Honda Classic triumph last year.

A proud Irish competitive tradition is reflected in 106 victories by 22 players since the European Tour was founded in 1972. This places us seventh in the all-time international list behind England (301), United States (203), Spain (173), Scotland (135), South Africa (131) and Australia (119).

Ireland's standing improved significantly, however, in the wake of Harrington's second and third Major successes in 2008. His influence can be seen in 29 victories since then, which lifted us to fourth in the international table behind the US (92), England (62) and South Africa (45) during that period.

It should also be noted that in official lists prior to the formation of the European Tour, Christy O'Connor Snr had 23 tour victories while Fred Daly had nine, including the 1947 Open, and Harry Bradshaw had six. All of which constitutes a truly impressive Irish contribution to the development of tournament golf in Europe over the last eight decades.

Dunne's generation, of course, have had the inspiration of no fewer than nine Major triumphs, apart from thrilling Ryder Cup exploits embracing The K Club in 2006. A 16th place finish in the tour's Qualifying School last November allowed the 23-year-old from Greystones to join Rory McIlroy (1), Shane Lowry (5), Graeme McDowell (68) and Michael Hoey (88) from the top 110 in the end-of-season money list, along with Harrington, Darren Clarke and Paul McGinley, who are exempted on other levels.

Dunne was a fortunate observer of these practitioners from the time, as a 13-year-old, he stood behind the first tee at The K Club on an unforgettable Friday morning in late September 2006. "I remember Darren Clarke's opening drive in the fourballs with Lee Westwood and the huge emotion of the occasion, because of his wife's death," he recalled.

"I have loads of memories from that weekend, including seeing Tiger Woods for the first time. Since then, I've played the course twice and it's going to be a real treat going back there for the Irish Open in May."

He went on: "I got my first international cap for the Irish Boys team in 2008, at a time when Pádraig had that amazing run in the Majors. He was probably the biggest deal in world golf, outside of Tiger, and definitely a great role model and a hero of mine. I read his book and studied his approach to the game, especially how hard he worked. Then, going to the same US college (UAB in Alabama) as Graeme was really huge. I could see what he did as their greatest-ever sportsman and later, what he achieved when he left."

Dunne went on to highlight McDowell's distinction of winning the Haskins Award as the outstanding collegiate golfer in the US in 2002. Its honorees, who include Ben Crenshaw, Curtis Strange and Woods, have delivered a total of 28 Major titles, among them McDowell's US Open of 2010. From Dunne's standpoint, it is also notable for last year's recipient, Maverick McNealy, with whom he halved Sunday's singles in the Walker Cup at Royal Lytham.

Dunne continued: "If you add in the pure ball-striking skills of Rory - who is just a phenomenon, a freak of nature - there's an unbelievable well of talent in Irish golf for guys like me to draw from."

Though an intended two-tournament South African trip hasn't gone as planned, Dunne is staying on for this week's Joburg Open. In the meantime, thinking of him on his own, thousands of miles from home, reminded me of the words of Peter Thomson when defining the prospects of youngsters on tour. "It depends on what they do with the other eight hours," he remarked with an acute awareness of having seen careers destroyed by simple homesickness or lonely hours on a bar-stool.

"Obviously missing the South African Open was terribly disappointing," Dunne said. "And being on my own, especially through illness, is not easy. But I'm not complaining in any shape or form. Though I'm only on tour since the autumn, I'm already getting used to it. Doing something I love is certainly better than a desk job. I've no complaints."

With that, his thoughts turned to more productive times and the bond which success at Lytham cemented between himself and his Irish colleagues. He talked of his foursomes partner Gary Hurley and of similarly enduring ties to Jack Hume, Gavin Moynihan and Cormac Sharvin.

"I'm conscious of being the first of the five of us to get a tour card," he said. "But in time, those other guys will be out here on tour, and we'll travel around together, just like we did as members of the six-man Irish team in our amateur days. Except that now we'll be paid. We've all been really close; at ease in each other's company. So, reviving that closeness as professionals is something to look forward to."

Did he subscribe to the notion of an Irish way of playing golf? "No," he replied. "These days, every golfer grows up differently and where my own game is concerned, I'd say the way I play is not overly natural. In fact it's very practised. My method when I started was not ideal, so I had to gradually change things. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

"I've now got to the point where I know I can play well enough to win, though my main objective is simply to get better. That's been my goal since my early days at college where it was drummed into us that if we kept trying to get better every year, we'd soon be good enough to realise our objectives."

On the Sunday of the Open Championship at St Andrews last July, Dunne scaled heights of amateur achievement which had not been witnessed since the halcyon days of Bobby Jones. European Tour director and former tournament professional David Jones, who is not given to hyperbole, felt moved to remark: "That back nine he shot on the way to a 66 on the Sunday was seriously impressive, considering the pressure he was under."

Was there a danger that Dunne's career could yet be defined by that extraordinary effort? "I would hardly describe my amateur achievements as prolific and if people want to remember me simply for St Andrews, that's fine," he replied. "It was certainly great to have had the spotlight shone on me on such a huge occasion, especially when I turned pro and started looking for sponsors' invites.

"But to me, people's expectations of my golf game don't really matter. The only thing that matters is the expectation I put on myself; the pressure I put myself under. As long as I keep focusing on that, outside influences won't get to me."

After this week's event, Dunne will head home with the prospect of kicking his heels until the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am on February 11 to 14: despite his prominence at the Qualifying School, his tour ranking is not high enough to get him into forthcoming events in Abu Dhabi, Qatar and Dubai. After Pebble, he heads to Australia and the Perth International before Thailand in early March.

The Pebble assignment is yet another example of the remarkable support Dunne has been able to count on from Greystones GC. As he explained: "A member of the club had a contact - I don't know how - with a tournament official. And I ended up with an invite, which is a real thrill, especially having walked the course when I happened to have a match close by during my early days at college."

Among the Tour's aristocrats, Seve Ballesteros with 50 European wins is followed by Bernhard Langer on 42, Woods on 40 and Colin Montgomerie on 31. More realistic targets for Dunne might be the 14 wins by both Harrington and Clarke and the 11 each for McIlroy and McDowell.

One thing seems assured: he looks a good bet to join the Tour's Irish roll of honour, even at this formative stage of his professional development.

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