He might have had just five hours sleep and suffered a nervy speed wobble coming down the stretch, but no-one could deny that Greystones’ Paul Dunne deserved his one-shot victory in the East of Ireland Amateur Open at sun-splashed County Louth.
The 20-year old finance student at the University of Alabama Birmingham (UAB), who led four strokes from Headfort’s Brian Casey overnight, saw his lead reduced to just two over the Meath man on seven under with round to go as he shot lost a ball off the 18th tee and shot a morning 72 to Casey’s 70.
“I tried to hit a little draw around the bunkers and just blocked it in the right,” he said. “I never found it, birdied with second ball gave me a little momentum.”
Momentum was crucial in the final round and having surged three clear of Casey with four to play thanks to a brilliant birdie at the 14th, and four clear with just two remaining after Casey bogeyed the 16th, he ended up going to the last just two ahead after a nervy double bogey at the 17th gave his opponent a glimmer of hope.
Casey would birdie the last for a 72 to finish on five under but Dunne, a former Irish Boys and Youths champion, had two putts for the title and duly took them, lagging his 35 footer close and tapping in for a 73 and first senior championship victory by the narrowest of margins on six under par 282.
“Three (shots) up with four to go it was mine to lose, which I tried my best to do,” Dunne said wistfully.
“It’s absolutely brilliant. I always thought if I was going to win one, this was the one because it is strokeplay and I like the course and the greens are good.”
Dunne didn’t get to sleep until the small hours but that was only because he was kept awake by a thumping birthday party in the bar as he battled to get some rest in the spartan dormy rooms above.
“The music started about quarter to 11 and woke me up until just after half two,” he said with a wide smile. “Until then got no sleep.”
Not that it was nerves that stopped him getting some shut eye.
“I was alright. I usually sleep okay, so that wasn’t a problem, because we were only halfway there. With two rounds left, wasn’t too nervous last night. Wish I could say the same about the back nine there.”
Drama was almost guaranteed in the final round given that Casey closed to within two as Dunne bogeyed the 18th in the morning round. Tullamore’s Stuart Grehan, who started the day five behind in third, fell out of the title race with a third round 75 and added another 75 in the afternoon to finish 10 shots behind in sixth alongside Co Louth’s Gareth Bohill.
A large gallery gamboled over the dunes and along the fairways for the final round to enjoy the sunshine and a fascinating title battle.
“For the front nine, I was just trying to control what I could control and make the best score I could on every hole,” Dunne explained later.
“That’s what I did at the start. And I got off to a nice start.”
Dunne parred the first and birdied the second by hitting a 60 yard bunker shot to a foot. Casey started bogey-par to find himself four behind again before both birdied the third.
“From then just tried not to do anything stupid,” Dunne explained. But in trying to close it out from so far from the finish, playing his normal game was a challenge.
Casey birdied the fifth to get to within three but while he bogeyed the ninth, finding sand off the tee, Dunne three-putted for bogey - “I yipped one on 9, pushed it” - to turn for home still three in front on eight under.
The first big turning point of the back nine came at the 10th. With Casey firing out of the left rough to the back of the green, Dunne played for a jumper from the semi rough on the left and came up 15 yards short of the green. His putt from there was tentative too and left him 12 feet for par.
He holed it, punching the air in celebration but the job was far from done.
“It was a strange back nine,” he said. “I either hacked my way up the holes or flushed my way up the holes.”
At the 11th he hooked his drive into deep rough on the left, hacked out into the rough on the right and bogeyed as Casey hit two great shots just off the left edge of the green and two putted to get back to two behind.
Dunne replied by playing the 12th perfectly and when a 10 footer for birdie dropped he was three clear again.
Yet he found more rough off the tee left of the 13th and bogeyed to see his lead reduced to two again. The short, par-four 14th would prove crucial.
Both were in the left rough but Dunne hit a 77 yard pitch and used the 22 yards of green to the pin to run the ball up to two feet for a certain birdie. Casey finished 12 feet away but as happened so many times in the final round, his birdie putt shaved the hole.
Three shots ahead with four holes to play, Dunne two putted from the back fringe at the 15th for par as Casey was forced to hole a four footer after running into the rough a few yards further through the back.
Determined not to make a mistake, Dunne played a fairway wood off the 16th tee, making sure he came up short of the fairway bunkers. Casey was forced to take a chance with the driver but found sand onthe right and with Dunne 35 feet from the pin in two, he thumped his recovery into the face of the bunker.
It popped out into the right rough but while his third came back from the rough over the green and finish 10 feet away, his par putt missed.
Four behind now, he was given a glimmer of hope when Dunne smothered his six iron tee shot 20 yards left at the 17th.
“I hit it there this morning,” Dunne said. “I was thinking, ‘the only place you can’t hit it is left’ and once you have that thought in your head the only place it is going is left.
“It was a six-iron and I tried to smother it to get it chasing up the green and turned it over a little bit. And it bounced away to left.”
Having three putted for bogey at the 17th in the first roiund and gone left in the second, Dunne knew he might be in trouble.
His fears were confirmed when Casey hit a superb tee shot to 15 feet. And when Dunne dumped his second in the bunker left of the green in attempting to skirt it, drama was assured.
The 20 year old’s tough bunker shot ran 18 feet past but Casey failed to pick the right line and could not make two. A par meant that Dunne would have a bogey putt to go to the last with a three=shot lead but the Greystones man missed and took double bogey to fall back to six under.
He might have been forgiven for recalling his lost ball off the tee in the morning round but when Casey found the left rough off the tee, he chose and iron and laid up well back, running just into the left rough.
Both men hit good recoveries but while Casey hit a fine third to six feet and eventually made the putt for birdie, Dunne hit his third to 35 feet and nervelessly two-putted for his par and a one-shot victory.
It’s a win that could herald his return to the Irish team after a 12 month hiatus. But he’s not thinking beyond his next outings in the Irish Close at Connemara this weekend and the British Amateur at Sandwich.
“I’m delighted, it’s been a while since I had the feeling of being in the last group. It’s a different feeling for my swing and my putting and I will take some stuff I can learn from and try to practice to get better hopefully and add some more to it.”
As for the Irish team, he said: “It’s nothing I can control. If I get picked, I get picked. But if I don’t get picked? I could win every tournament technically and they don’t pick me. So if I can’t control that, all I can do is control what I can control which is my practice schedule and how I can approach tournaments in preparation and committing to what I set out to do.”
East of Ireland Amateur Open Championship, Co Louth GC (Par 72)
282 P Dunne (Greystones) 69 68 72 73 (As part of Leinster Golf’s centenary year celebrattions, Dunne also won the medal presented to the Leinster player with the best gross)
283 B Casey (Headfort) 72 69 70 72
289 D Morgan (Mullingar) 68 77 69 75
291 H Diamond (Belvoir Park) 77 72 71 71, P McBride (The Island) 70 75 74 72
292 G Bohill (Co. Louth) 75 71 74 72, S Grehan (Tullamore) 71 71 75 75
293 J Hume (Rathsallagh) 71 77 74 71
294 J Hopkins (The Royal Dublin) 76 74 76 68, S Healy (Claremorris) 72 72 76 74, T McLarnon (Massereene) 71 76 72 75, S Walsh (Portmarnock) 71 75 73 75, S O’Connor (Luttrellstown Castle) 71 72 74 77
295 C O’Rourke (Naas) 80 70 72 73, R Cannon (Balbriggan) 80 68 68 79, P Murray (Limerick) 73 74 74 74, S Ward (Co. Louth) 71 73 74 77, B Best (Rathmore) 71 72 71 81
296 M McAlpin (Royal Portrush) 78 72 75 71
297 J Galbraith (Whitehead) 76 73 73 75, B Anderson (The Royal Dublin) 74 75 73 75, S Carter (Stackstown) 73 72 74 78
298 K Quigg (City of Derry) 71 74 80 73
299 J Greene (Portmarnock) 75 75 72 77, E Smith (Ardee) 72 72 76 79
300 P Reavey (Warrenpoint) 80 67 77 76, C Melvin (Corrstown) 76 73 74 77, S Flanagan (Co. Sligo) 76 72 76 76
301 S Moran (Carton House) 76 73 79 73, G McDermott (Co. Sligo) 75 68 78 80, J Sutherland (Galgorm Castle) 74 73 75 79, G Lenehan (Portmarnock) 71 75 76 79
302 S Bryan (Delgany) 75 74 77 76, A Kearney (Castlerock) 74 74 78 76
304 D Carey (Carton House) 75 72 75 82, G Collins (Rosslare) 73 72 77 82, I O’ Flynn (Cork) 72 76 78 78
305 J Walsh (Castle) 73 75 77 80
306 J Yates (Naas) 76 74 80 76
307 M Brett (Portmarnock) 76 74 78 79, I Brennan (Greenore) 76 72 78 81, D Byrne (Greystones) 76 70 78 83, J Fox (Portmarnock) 74 75 84 74
308 D Holland (Castle) 78 72 75 83, S McGlynn (Carton House) 77 73 75 83, M Sinclair (Knock) 76 72 79 81
309 K Lynch (Skibbereen) 72 76 77 84
310 A Carrick (Douglas Park Golf Club) 77 73 80 80, N Foley (The Island) 74 73 85 78
311 K Purcell (Dun Laoghaire) 77 73 78 83, M Mullen (Wexford) 72 76 77 86