If you’d bumped into Maria Dunne seven years ago and told her she’d be one of the top amateurs in Ireland and a potential Curtis Cup player in her early thirties, she’d probably have laughed in your face. Or perhaps in your knees given it was around this time she suffering such excruciating problems with her back that she’d had to crawl from her car to her front door.
Those problems are now a thing of the past and the Skerries player, who is 31 and one of the top six Irish players in the world amateur golf rankings, approaches the 2015 season standing tall thanks an optimistic streak that’s become her hallmark.
Speak to her for just a few minutes and you will come away impressed by a person with a bouncy, positive attitude. She’s a fighter but it’s not a fight to the death. She loves competition but you get the impression that if push came to shove, she’d happily play the game for the joy of the friendships she has made.
In fact, some common themes emerged during our short interview and respect and admiration for others are right at the top of the list
Her coach Roger Yates has been with her since she took up the game at the age of 15. Sixteen summers later, Yates has taken her from a 18 handicapper to a plus two talent capable of mixing it with the best in the world. Little wonder he’s one of the first people she mentions.
“I've huge admiration and respect for Roger,” she says. “I think I was playing off around 18 when my dad, Damien, took me for my first lesson with him at the Open Golf Centre and I'm plus 2 now. He’d just moved to Ireland from England and he was based there. Dad read about Roger in the paper and decided to take me to see him. Great move by him!”
Maria’s self-deprecating sense of humour belies a fierce competitive spirit and her coach’s pridein her achievements shone through via twitter when she followed a runner up finish in the South American Amateur in Peru in January with a run to the last eight in the Spanish Amateur Championship a few weeks later.
“A battling performance from @MimaDunne in beating Chloe Williams on the 19th having been 3 down after 9. #Skerriesscrapper,” Yates wrote after the first round.
There was to be no comeback against world No 3 Linnea Strom in the quarter-finals in Seville, however. But while Dunne lost 7 and 5 and admits she was always going to be “up against it,” her competitive pride was hurt that she hadn’t made life a little tougher for her Swedish opponent.
“In Peru I said a Top 10 would be nice and I ended up finishing second, nearly winning it,” she recalls. “In the Spanish I said, just try and make the cut as it was an elite event with just 32 qualifying from a field of 99 and anything can happen in match play.
“I won two my first two matches. In fact, I was three down after nine in my first match. But I am a big believer in a fightback. I don’t know why, but I believe in myself. I’ve been down a lot of times in matches and make it hard for myself to come back but I have done it several times. I hang in there and make it hard for my opponent.”
Hanging in there has become her trademark and while she’s constantly expressing surprise that she has gone so far in the game, she also knows that if she performs well this summer she could make the Vagliano Trophy side to take on the Continent of Europe at Malone from June 26-27.
That she’s even dreaming of making that team, and the Curtis Cup team to do battle at Dun Laoghaire in 2016, is still a hugely pleasant surprise.
Making the three-strong Irish team for last year’s World Amateur Team Championship for the Espirito Santo Trophy in Japan is, she says, the biggest achievement of her career so far and she’s determined to push on and she what she can achieve.
“I’ve just been to two continents that I never though I’d get to see,” she says. “I was shocked to get on the team for Japan and shocked again when I was asked if I’d like to play in Peru.”
She admits that she couldn’t do what she does without the support of her employers at the Kinsealy Grange Golf Academy & Driving Range or her husband Bryan, a busy farmer.
“I was just saying to a friend of mine that if I had a normal nine to five job I couldn’t do what I do,” she says. “At work I can hit balls during the day or before I start, or during my lunch. If I worked in town, I’d been getting home at 7 in the evening and it would be hard to go out and head to a driving range.
“But I’m lucky that three days a week I can get up at half five and go to the gym and be in work for 7.30 and hit balls if I want. When the days brighten up I can maybe go out for nine holes after work.”
Winner of the ILGU’s Titleist Scratch Cup circuit in 2013 and 2014 — she clinched her final victory at Royal Portrush just six days before her wedding last year — her plan for 2015 is to build on what’s been a great start to the season.
“I’d love to play Vagliano and the way I have started the season has been great and I’d just love to keep that up,” she says. “It’s out of my hands but if I do enough, the selectors might see that and pick me. Other than that I am just really enjoying my golf at the moment. The game just seems easier that it was five, six seven years ago. I don’t know why.”
Her journey from US university graduate — and promising college soccer goalkeeper — to international golfer is a stirring one, as she told Brendan Coffey in an interview for Golfnet.ie earlier this year.
One morning, she explained, she parked her car and had to crawl in order to reach the front door.
“There were days where I would feel really low,” she said. “I’m a very active person. I keep my days filled up all the time even during the off season. To not be able to do much is heartbreaking. It’s even more heartbreaking when you used to be able to play at such a high standard.”
Explaining that she hit rock bottom at the Irish Stroke Play at Elm Park in 2008, she said: “I would never pull out of a tournament, especially not halfway through it. I shouldn’t have even played the first round. At lunch time I realised I can’t do this. I couldn’t keep playing tournaments like that.
“I thought that was me done at the time. I couldn’t compete at the level that I was used to. I was struggling to do the basic things. I would struggle to get out of bed.”
It took several years to recover but she made the Irish team for the 2012 Home Internationals at Cork and hasn’t looked back.
“The last two or three years have been brilliant,” she told Golfnet.ie. “I could have walked away from the game but my coach Roger Yates has been such an inspiration that I stuck at it."
The rest, as they say, is history and Dunne is now an integral part of the ILGU’s High Performance Programme, where she is surrounded by young players keen to follow in the footsteps of LPGA player Stephanie Meadow, who was a team mate of hers just a couple of years ago.
“The young girls now want to go pro,” she says. “You can see that’s the way it is going to go and they will have seen Stephanie Meadow and what she achieved and that’s done a huge amount for amateur golf.
“I played with her just two years ago and while she is a super ball striker, she is also such a lovely person. I really admire her. The girls will have watched her finishing third in the US Women’s Open last summer and though, ‘I could do this.’ Stephanie is a really lovely person and a great role model for the girls to have.”
Maria has her own lofty goals but it’s not life or death.
“The Curtis Cup is the goal, the dream,” she admits. “But it is not the be all and end all. I will try my best to build on what I have done so far this year and she where it takes me.”
As one of Ireland’s elite players, Maria is now playing an elite schedule, which has boosted her chances of picking up world ranking points and catching the eye of selectors.
Like all top players, she’s a competitive animal but she’s happy to admit that there’s more to life than silverware and glory.
“I’m not really sure what motivates me,” she says. “I have a lot of friends in golf and I treasure those friendships more than anything. I’ve played in those championships all over the country since I was around 15. So that’s 16 summers and a lot of memories and friendships.”
This summer promises to be busier than ever with the Women’s British Amateur at Portstewart, the Irish Close at Rosapenna and the Irish Strokeplay at Dun Laoghaire to name just a few of her big dates.
Still, friendship comes first.
“I’m missing the Scottish Strokeplay at Troon, the Helen Holm, because my friend is getting married,” she says. “I’ve missed so much over the years but I can’t miss a friend’s wedding.”
Golf might be importantbut like every great sportsperson, she knows that finding that balance between competition and daily is even more key.
This article first appeared in Golf Digest Ireland in March 2015