Paul Dunne: "He's one of life's winners"

Paul Dunne: "He's one of life's winners"

Paul Dunne. Picture Pat Cashman

Wicklow has produced a long list of top golfers from Delgany’s Harry Bradshaw and Eamonn Darcy to Bray’s Keith Nolan and Greystones’ Jimmy Martin. Now it appears that Paul Dunne, another Greystones man, will follow those illustrious names into the professional ranks. And while a man’s destiny is always clouded in mystery at this early stage of his career, those who know him best say he’s got that special X factor that marks him out as one of the chosen few.

As a graduate of the University of Alabama Birmingham (UAB), he’s at least managed to emerge from the shadow of his fellow UAB man Graeme McDowell, who was a semester short of getting this degree because he opted to turn professional instead.

McDowell’s stellar achievements as a collegiate golfer are beyond almost everyone—he beat Tiger’s scoring average in his final year— and there was a wry smile of resignation on Dunne’s face when he finished fifth in the NCAA Division 1 Tournament Finals at the Concession in Florida in May.

"I didn't know I finished one behind where Graeme did so that would have been nice to pip him,” Dunne says to camera shortly after discovering he’s ended up one place spot of the college-best fourth place achieved by McDowell in the 2002 NCAAs. “It feels like his records are unattainable at the school.”

Comparisons are odious, especially when it comes to a 22-year old and McDowell who won the 2010 US Open having attained 24 Top 10s in 41 collegiate starts for UAB, the 2002 Fred Haskins Award and nine wins in his three years at the school.

Dunne didn’t achieve those levels of success but he did make the Division I PING All-America Honourable Mention list, joining McDowell (2000-01, 2001-02) with consecutive All-America selections.

That’s a very big deal in US college golf but winning a Walker Cup cap is next on Dunne’s list of career goals before he takes the plunge and heads to the Q-School later in the autumn. 

And while there is always nervousness about the bravery of Great Britain and Ireland selectors when it comes to picking Irishmen — we have five or six viable candidates for places this year — Dunne is considered a certainty for a place in Nigel Edwards’ team to face the USA at Royal Lytham and St Annes from September 12-13.

At least, that’s how UAB’s Head Coach Alan Murray, another product of Greystones, feels about his star player. 

After all, Dunne is a former winner of the Irish Boys, the Irish Youths and the East of Ireland titles on the domestic circuit. He’s a star who played in The Open last year, won the St Andrew Trophy with the cream of Great Britain & Ireland, denied the USA the Palmer Cup with the top European college players and was a member of the Irish team that won the Home Internationals and finished second in the European Team Championships.

“An American magazine asked me about Paul and the Walker Cup earlier this year and I said if they have 10 guys better than him, I’d love to see that team. I don’t think GB&I have 10 better guys. I’d certainly have him. 

“He’s a great lad, very focussed — as efficient with his time as anyone I have ever seen. He gets the most out of every day, which for a young guy is really impressive. He is always out there working on his game with a purpose.”

Murray picks out Dunne’s determination, his short game and his intelligence as his greatest assets, which immediately brings to mind McDowell and Pádraig Harrington, who of the brightest and most hard-working pros out there

“His short game is ridiculous, the best short game I have ever seen,” Murray says, which is also a quality he shares with the two major winning Ryder Cup stars. “He chips it stiff more than anyone I can remember. He is just one of life’s winners — great student, gets As all the time in class, consistent across the board with everything the does.…

“At workouts he was the strongest, the fastest…. he’s just a winner. Anything he does in life, he is going to be successful at it. That’s my opinion. I would never be surprised by anything good that he does.

“He is very disciplined and level headed. There is stuff he wants to get done and he has a clear belief in how he is going to get where he wants to go. If you spend any amount of time with him you quickly understand why he is as good as he is. 

“They love making the comparison over here with Graeme who went to UAB and is a highly intelligent guy. Graeme was a winner. He had that special X factor and I can see similarities between them from that point of view. But Paul is his own man, it is unfair to compare him to what Graeme has done in the game.

“Graeme had an exceptional college and amateur career. Graeme was off the charts. One thing I would say about Paul is that the sports information people at UAB interviewed him straight after his last round at NCAA finals and he had already figured out where he went wrong. 

“He had already mentally processed the round. I was with him for every shot and he is so competitive, he wanted to win. He was a little bit disappointed not to win and yet you could see he was already figuring out how he was going to get better. To be so young and already to be thinking along those lines is very impressive, I think.”

Dunne knows his driving and his putting could improve but it’s course management that appears to get most of his attention and as he received plaudits for winning Final Qualifying for The Open at Woburn for the second year running, you sensed he was reacting at some level to the three back nine double bogeys that had left him tied for ninth behind Irish team mate Cormac Sharvin in the previous weekend’s Brabazon Trophy at Hollinwell.

“I look back join the last round in the Brabazon and I was making mistakes I was making when I was 15,” he says, minutes after carding rounds of 70 and 65 to leave the likes of Retief Goosen and Colin Montgomerie trailing to win Final Qualifying for the Open by three shots at Woburn. “I was immature, not picking shots, not picking targets, just getting up and hitting it rather than actually having a bit of maturity… so that was good for this week. It toughened me up a little mentally.”

As a man with a degree in Investment Finance, he certainly knows how to weigh up risk and reward and he does not even begin to compare himself to two players who should have been graduating from college with him this year but are already PGA Tour stars.

Masters and US Open champion Jordan Spieth and rookie superstar Justin Thomas should, by rights, have been completing their college careers alongside Dunne in the NCAA Tournament.

That they left college after one year in the case of Spieth or two, when it comes to Thomas, says a lot about their ability.

But their lives tell Dunne little about where he stands as he prepares to say goodbye to the amateur ranks.

“It hasn’t hit me yet and won’t hit me until August time when I am used to going back to UAB,” Dunne says. “Every year ti has been the same thing, go home and play the summer tournaments around Europe and then head back to the US. It’s when I start doing something different around August or September that it will hit me.”

When it comes to his game, he’s more confident that ever.

“Day in, day out I’ve played better this year than ever in my life,” Dunne says on his last day in Alabama as he prepares to close his bank account and move out of his digs after four years. “It hasn’t been showing my results until recently — I finished with three top 10s in he a row — so I am heading home feeling good.”

His ambition is to make that Walker Cup team and he’s got a good feeling about seeing Irish team mates Gavin Moynihan, Gary Hurley, Cormac Sharvin, Jack Hume and Dermot McElroy join him

“I think it is is a pretty realistic goal for all of us,” he says of a possible five or six-man Irish presence in the 10-man Walker Cup side. “Obviously I think we all want to make it and we are all focussing on playing well to make the team. 

“I think if you asked any of the six of us now if we think we should be on the team, I think we would all say yes. We all have a lot of confidence in our own games.”

As for Spieth and Thomas, he says: “They felt they were ready and obviously they’ve been going fantastically well. 

“I can’t say how I compare because I don’t know how they felt about their games. They’ve both done phenomenally well but maybe they now feel they are miles ahead of where they were when they left college. It’s hard to compare.

“I do know that the college scene is great and you play the same type of courses you would if you were playing in a tour environment. And I know a lot of people are playing with the midst of turning pro afterwards and preparing for it in their own heads.

“But in terms of predicting who will be on tour as the next Spieth or Thomas, it’s so hard to tell. You get such as small window to do well and get a card so it is whoever can step up when they need to.”

The future, in Dunne’s mind at least, is crystal clear and that’s half the battle.

“I am feeling quite good about everything,” he says. “All the elements are there. My putting is starting to come around. I just need to all to come together.” 

Murray will carry his bag at St Andrews and he’s certainly got no doubts about his star pupil’s ability.

“You root for those guys - the ones who go about it the right way,” Murray says. “He really is giving it his all. He’s giving himself every chance to be successful and when you are talented like he is and you are working hard, success is inevitable, I believe.

“I’ve never had to ask Paul if he had certain stuff done for this classes. He was always on top of that from day one. I have no idea if they are thinking this way about Paul but management companies and agencies look at what these guys are like away from the golf course, and commit a large about of money. They will ask themselves, ‘If we spend x on this guy, how safe a bet is it going got be in this guy’s hands?’ Well, how Paul lives his life is a safe investment in my eyes. 

“His short game is the standout quality or part of his game. But mentally he is very strong. For want of a better term, he’s one tough cookie and he will rarely beat himself.

“Like all good putters, he thinks he can make everything and if there was one aspect he’d say he needs to improve it’s his driving. 

“He has picked up yardage with each year and if he gets it to where he wants to be, the sky’s the limit."

Given his track record so far, Dunne looks like a very good bet indeed to give himself a fighting chance of becoming the next bloom from Co Wicklow, that golfing Garden of Ireland.