Been there, Dunne that - Irish amateur primed for second tilt at the Open

Paul Dunne leads the Irish challenge at St Andrews.

QUALIFYING FOR THE Open is an achievement in itself, particularly when you’re an amateur, but having done it in consecutive years, Paul Dunne isn’t at St Andrews this week just to enjoy the experience.

143rd Open Championship - Previews Dunne with Graeme McDowell before last year's Open. Source: Ross Kinnaird/R&A

The 22-year-old from Greystones fell just short of playing into the weekend at Hoylake twelve months ago but those couple of days in Liverpool served as an enlightening exercise.

Dunne’s performance – rounds of 75 and 73 – provided evidence of his potential and was reassurance that he certainly wasn’t out of his depth at the top level.

“It was a bit overwhelming,” he recalls. “It was difficult to settle in and just go about your business because of all that was happening around you. During the practise rounds, there were big galleries following you around – I just wasn’t used to that.

“It was a real eye opener.”

This time around, he doesn’t feel as much out of his comfort zone.

Dunne has just graduated from University of Alabama where he spent four years combining studies – Business Finance – with golf and has enjoyed a productive year on the amateur circuit.

It all came to fruition at Woburn golf club last month as he blew away the field, including Retief Goosen, Colin Montgomerie, Robert Rock, at the Open qualifying event to grab one of the final spots at the 144th championship.

However, it wasn’t without drama – he arrived on the first tee just in the nick of time with a minute to spare.

Golf - The Open Championship 2014 - Day Two - Royal Liverpool Golf Club In 2009, he became the first player to make a successful defence of the Irish boys title. Source: David Davies

Fast forward a fortnight and when the unmistakable voice of Ivor Robson declares this year’s race for the Claret Jug under-way, Dunne will lead the Irish charge.

“It’s been completely different to last year,” he tells The42 on the eve of the first round. “I’ve had a couple of days of good preparation and have come up with a game plan and strategy to try and get around this amazing course because, at the end of the day, it’s all about scoring.

“I’m more comfortable this time but it doesn’t matter what has happened up until now because what matters is what you do come Thursday.”

Having been in Scotland since Sunday, there has been no shortage of opportunity for Dunne to familiarise himself with the Old Course and settle into his surroundings.

A practise round with Shane Lowry and Graeme McDowell on Wednesday gave him the chance to pick the brains of two golfers who have seen it all before.

“They’ve been really helpful,” the former Blackrock College student continues. “Graeme is someone I would look up to and he gave me some great advice on how to play the course during our round.

“Hopefully I can go out now with my caddy and use those tips to implement the strategy we’ve come up with it.”

The build-up to the tournament has centred around the changeable weather and the impact that will make on how the golf course will play.

Dunne is in the second group off – alongside 2004 winner Todd Hamilton and James Hahn – at 6.43am and with strong wind and rain forecast for Thursday, he may just escape the worst of it.

Yet, Dunne is focusing on, as Joe Schmidt often refers to, the controllables. For someone in the infancy of his career, he is mature beyond his years.

“It’s easy to get caught up in it all – the tournament, the crowd, the players, the weather but I think you just have to do what you always do and realise the ball is the same size and the hole is the same size of every other day.

“Of course, I want to do as well as I can but it’s not a case of sink or swim. This week is a great opportunity for me but if I don’t play the way I want or don’t score well, it’s not the end of the world.”

Paul Dunne Ê Dunne missed the cut at last year's Open by two shots. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

But nerves are only natural. Twelve months ago, it wasn’t until his name was announced on the first tee that he even began to appreciate the magnitude of the situation and the esteem of his company.

By his own admission, the build-up has been curiously relaxed with his family renting a house close the course for the duration of the tournament. “We’re all happy now but whether we are come Thursday evening will be another thing,” he jokes.

Indeed a good start is essential if Dunne is to harbour any hopes of being around for the business end of the tournament – although he’s not allowing himself to look that far ahead just yet.

The prospect of following in Rory McIlroy’s footsteps by winning the Silver Medal – the prize for the leading amateur – is one which certainly excites Dunne but he’s never been one to put pressure on himself.

“Obviously it would be great to make the cut and brilliant to win the Silver Medal but you can’t really control those results,” he quickly says, tempering expectations with a dash of realism.

The focus is firmly on the next few days but the plan is to turn professional in mid-September.

“I’ve always wanted to turn pro but I don’t think I’ve always thought I would. But as time has gone on, you just keep developing and eventually it’s the next step.”

Although he learnt his trade on the fairways and greens of Greystones Golf Club, Dunne attributes his rich golfing education to the US college system which gave him the platform to develop his game.

screenshot.1436995126.66978 Dunne joins former UAB graduate McDowell in the field. Source: American Sports Net/Twitter

“It was brilliant,” he says of his time Stateside. “It’s difficult to make that decision to leave home and go over but I feel like my game has come on so much and I’ve matured as well.”

As one chapter of his golfing career comes to an end, you get the feeling this week at St Andrews is the beginning of the next for Dunne. Twelve months after realising his golfing dream, he is now primed to make a major impression.

Let’s hope he sets his alarm clock nice and early.

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Ryan Bailey

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