Friday 14 December 2018

Dermot Gilleece: Dunne adds his name to impressive winners' list

Paul Dunne became the fourth Irishman to win the British Masters. Photo: Sportsfile
Paul Dunne became the fourth Irishman to win the British Masters. Photo: Sportsfile

Dermot Gilleece

A relatively thin year for Irish achievement on the international golfing stage was lifted significantly by a gifted newcomer. Paul Dunne became the 34th player from this island to win a front-rank international professional tournament since the breakthrough was achieved back in 1922.

That was when Greenore's Pat O'Hare gained an unlikely triumph in the North and South Open at Pinehurst, North Carolina. Now, 95 years on, we can also salute Dunne as our latest 'Master Golfer' through his hugely impressive triumph at Close House, Newcastle, on October 1.

He is, in fact, only the fourth Irishman to capture the British Masters crown which once held a cachet not a million miles behind Champion Golfer of the Year, conferred on the reigning Open Champion. Dunne follows in the formidable footsteps of Harry Bradshaw, Christy O'Connor Snr and Christy O'Connor Jnr.

Interestingly, while the Greystones player, who only turned 25 last month, concentrated on putting distance between himself and Rory McIlroy over the finishing stretch, it was fascinating to recall the thoughts of Christy Junior in similar circumstances at Woburn in 1992.

O'Connor had quit smoking in January 1990, which made this an attempt at capturing a top-level title without the comfort of the dreaded weed. "It was tough," he said to me at the time. "Deep down, I felt I wouldn't have really broken the habit until I won another tournament without them."

He went on: "As I walked up the 18th fairway at Woburn on my way to victory, I thought, 'If I was a smoker, I'd really love a cigarette now.' In that moment, I could fully accept that I was a non-smoker. And, of course, going on to win, drove home the point."

For a notable staging at Portmarnock in 1959, the one-time Dunlop Masters had a limited field of 24 invited professionals along with the reigning British Amateur champion, before it evolved into a regular, albeit highly-prized tour event. That was when Joe Carr deputised for the unavailable Amateur winner, Deane Beman, and with a four-stroke lead going into the final round, he looked a good bet to achieve his life-long ambition of winning a top-level professional event.

Sadly for Carr, it was also when O'Connor Snr, at the peak of his powers, produced a sparkling eight-under-par course-record of 66 to win by four strokes from Carr and another Irishman, Norman Drew, in a share of second place.

Dunne can take considerable pride in adding a 21st century dimension to the path trod by such distinguished compatriots. In the process, he followed the latest European Tour win by Pádraig Harrington in the Portugal Masters almost a year previously, while becoming the first victorious newcomer since Simon Thornton in 2013.

For reasons they have never satisfactorily explained, the European Tour persist in separating golfers from this island. Which means Northern Ireland have an official 58 European Tour wins while 51 are credited to Ireland, making 109 in all. This projects a seriously distorted picture, however, given that it dates only from the formation of the Tour in 1972, by which stage O'Connor Snr had captured 23 of his 24 Tour victories. His only official European Tour win, in fact, was the 1972 Carrolls International.

It also excludes such notable contemporaries as Fred Daly, whose Irish Open victory of 1946 was followed by a Major breakthrough in the 1947 Open Championship. Bradshaw was also a successful campaigner before the arrival of such as Drew, Jimmy Martin, Hugh Boyle, Ernie Jones and Paddy Skerritt.

As it happens, Ireland's international prominence has been greatly enhanced under the European Tour banner, not least through the performances of players such as McIlroy, Harrington, Darren Clarke, Ronan Rafferty and Graeme McDowell. From a total of 35 countries which can claim European Tour victories, Ireland (109) is placed seventh behind England (319), United States (215), Spain (181), South Africa (141), Scotland (136) and Australia (130). Comparative newcomers Sweden are a highly creditable eighth on 107.

Finally, the growing appeal of America's PGA Tour means we are unlikely to see again the dominance exerted by Seve Ballesteros with 50 European Tour victories. Nor by Bernhard Langer on 42, nor Nick Faldo on 30. In this context, Harrington has been the Leading Irishman since 1972 with 15 official European wins, including three Majors.

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