School’s out for Paul Dunne, the former UAB golf who imagined playing golf “every time I was sitting in school.”
He just never imagined doing the schooling so soon.
On Sunday, in one of the best days of his life, the 22-year-old became the first amateur since Bobby Jones in 1927 to lead the British Open after 54 holes. He is tied with Jason Day and Louis Oosthuizen at 12-under 204. The trio leads Masters and U.S. Open champion Jordan Spieth by one stroke and Padraig Harrington by two with nine players three shots back.
“It’s surreal,” Dunne said. “but I can easily believe that I shot the three scores that I shot. If I was playing an amateur event here, I wouldn’t be too surprised. It’s just lucky that it happens to be in the biggest event in the world. Hopefully, I can do it again (Monday) but, whether I do it or not, I’ll survive either way.”
Dunne is 18 holes from becoming the first amateur to win the Open since Jones in 1930 and from joining another former Blazers player, Graeme McDowell, as a major champion. Dunne teed off Monday in the final pairing with Oosthuizen, the 2010 Open champion.
“Paul’s a special kid. Same as Graeme (McDowell),” UAB golf coach Alan Murray said in June at the NCAA championships.
McDowell is another former UAB golfer from Ireland coached by Murray, who is Dunne’s caddie this week at the Open.
“He’s got a great work ethic,” Murray said. “Really bright guy, similar to Graeme. Got a lot of talent. He’s got a Tour-quality short game. It’s phenomenal. One of the best pitchers and chippers, bunker players, I’ve ever seen. Manages to play the right shot all the time. He makes it look easy.”
Dunne, a 1,500-to-1 shot to win the Open, made it look easy with 14 birdies and only two bogeys through 54 holes. On Sunday, he shot 66 for the lowest round ever by an amateur in the Open at St. Andrews.
Talking about the Open back in June, Dunne said: “It’s links golf, there’s no water, there’s no trees. The biggest defense is wind. It’s only tough if it’s windy. If it’s not windy, it’s usually not that hard.”
How would he know?
Dunne competed in the Open last year for the first time after winning a qualifier at Woburn Golf Club in Milton Keynes, England. He missed the cut by two strokes after finishing the first two rounds with a 4-over-par 148.
He won the qualifier at Woburn again this year with consecutive rounds of 67 and set a goal of finishing as the low amateur in this year’s Open.
Now he’ll be going for his first major championship in what likely will be his final major as an amateur.
“I’ll be nervous on first tee. Hopefully I can get off to a settled start,” Dunne said Sunday. “I’m not really going to think about winning until the last few holes. I’ll have a number in my head and try to shoot it.”
That’s how Dunne won the Open qualifier after arriving on the first tee just a minute before his start time, and that ability to focus is one reason why nobody around UAB’s golf team ever doubted him.
He finished four tournaments under par for UAB last season, only second best on the team. But that was no small feat on a team that won the NCAA Bremerton Regional by two shots to reach the NCAA championships.
Dunne contended for NCAA medalist honors at Concession Golf Club Course in Bradenton, Fla., until a double bogey on the 10th hole of the final round. But he rallied for two birdies to finish at 5-under-par 283, three shots behind champion Bryson DeChambeau of LSU.
“He doesn’t accept being mediocre,” said Ryan Davies, a UAB teammate from Wales who roomed with Dunne for four years.
No one does on UAB’s golf team, partly because of the standard McDowell set in his two seasons at UAB.
“He’s done what I want to do,” said Dunne, who followed in McDowell’s footsteps before UAB and hopes to continue doing so.
- Both hail from the island of Ireland — McDowell from Portrush, Northern Ireland; Dunne from Greystones, Ireland, born in Dublin. And like McDowell, Dunne’s resume includes a spot on the Irish youth team and an Irish Youths Amateur championship.
- Only one Blazers player carded a better round in the NCAAs than Dunne’s 283 — McDowell, who tied for fourth in 2002 with a 3-under 279 at the Ohio State University Scarlet Course.
- Dunne was Conference USA Golfer of the Year in 2014. Only one Blazers player has more — McDowell, who won the honors in 2001 and ’02.
Then there’s major history. While Dunne is on the brink of it, McDowell won the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, ending a 40-year drought for Europeans at the event. He has also won twice on the PGA Tour, 10 times on the European Tour and is a three-time European Ryder Cup team member. In his best finish at the British Open, McDowell tied for fifth in 2012.
At the Open last year, McDowell and Dunne played together in a practice round. Did McDowell offer any advice?
“Stay patient, keep working on your game,” Dunne said. “It’s good to hear it from somebody who’s doing what I want to do.”
Heading into this year’s final round of the Open, Dunne leads McDowell by 10 shots.
“So proud of him,” Murray said in June after Dunne completed the final round of his UAB career. Dunne parred No. 18 at Concession Golf Club then player and coach embraced.
“He’s a class act,” Murray said. “Gonna miss him. Gonna miss him. You hate to lose guys like that, but he’ll be moving on to bigger and better things. I’m sure.”
Beats sitting in a classroom.