Paul Dunne’s St Andrews “scar” is definitely healing. In his first outing as the new British Masters champion, the Irishman signed for one of the best opening-day scores in the $5 million Alfred Dunhill Links Championship. If he’d carded his five-under-par 67 on the Old Course back in 2015, Dunne would have won the Open Championship as an amateur.
“It was a situation I wasn’t used to at the time and might have overwhelmed me a bit,” he recalled of tying for the 54-hole lead in that event before closing with a 78 as American Zach Johnson claimed the Claret Jug. “But I’m in a better place to deal with it now, I think.”
Before holing out on the last on a pleasant but testing first day, Dunne stepped aside to watch Rory McIlroy, playing in the group behind, hit his tee shot to around 10 feet. The eagle opportunity wasn’t converted, though, leaving the four-time major winner having to settle for a 71. “Kind of summed up my day,” admitted McIlroy, having been “fined” for wearing a cap in the hotel breakfast room then losing to Johann Rupert, the man behind this event, in a “double or quits bet” out on the course.
Only a brave man would take on Dunne for money right now. Taking up where he left off when closing with a 61 to hold off a last-day charge from McIlroy to claim his breakthrough European Tour victory at Close House last Sunday, the 24-year-old Dubliner signed for an eagle and four birdies. Despite dropping his first shot in 40 holes at the 17th, the effort was the best at St Andrews by a shot from four players, including defending champion Tyrrell Hatton.
“Life is pretty good at the minute,” said Dunne, smiling. “My game still feels good – my iron play in particular was good today – and it takes that little bit of pressure off when you’ve done it [winning] once.”
In that Open here, Dunne was the first amateur to hold the 54-hole lead – he shared top spot with Jason Day and Louis Oosthuizen – in 88 years. In the end, he tied for 30th, even missing out on the Silver Medal as it went to American Jordan Niebrugge.
“It was one that still leaves a scar when I think back on that day, but it’s also something that gave me so much confidence as this is kind of where everything started for me,” acknowledged Dunne.
“After that Open, I knew I was going to have a professional career and it opened loads of doors for me. I definitely wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for that, so generally I have good memories around here and it was also here that I made my professional debut two years ago.”
On a day when Belgian Nicolas Colsaerts matched Dunne’s effort at Kingsbarns and David Drysdale was one of three players to fare best at Carnoustie with three-under-par 69s, McIlroy was out in one over par – three shots more than his amateur partner, dad Gerry, on his birthday – and had slipped to three-over before picking up birdies at the 14th and the 18th.
“I didn’t feel I played that much differently [to closing with rounds of 64 and 63 to finish second behind Dunne in the British Masters],” said the 28-year-old afterwards. “The conditions are much different – it was tricky enough out there – and it was more of a grind.”
This is McIlroy’s last event of the year before taking a three-month break and he is still feeling quietly confident he can still get in the mix. “I’ve got off to slow starts here in the past and been able to recover and get myself back into the tournament,” he pointed out ahead of a second-day visit to Carnoustie, where the wind isn’t expected to be quite as strong as it was for those tackling it for their opening circuit. “I feel like I can do the same again.”
Colsaerts, back playing the golf that earned him a Ryder Cup wild card in 2012, ran up a double-bogey seven at the third at Kingbarns before picking up three birdies in the next five holes then adding three more on the back nine, including a 3-3 finish. “I kept composed,” he said afterwards, before adding about this week’s pro-am format: “It’s not as relaxed as you think. It’s fun, but we still play a tournament in there somewhere.”