Paul Dunne steals show but it’s tight at the top

DUNNE and dusted? Certainly not. The tightest finish to an Open Championship for many a year is on the cards when the 144th staging reaches its belated conclusion today.

Paul Dunne, a 22-year-old amateur from Dublin, takes some well-earned applause as he heads over the Swilcan Bridge. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Paul Dunne, a 22-year-old amateur from Dublin, takes some well-earned applause as he heads over the Swilcan Bridge. Picture: Ian Rutherford

Fourteen players are separated by just three shots heading into the final round. Half of them are major winners; others have sore knuckles from knocking at the door so often in those events. Two, one in particular, are in with a chance of becoming the first amateur to pick up the Claret Jug in 85 years. More than enough, surely, to get us excited about just the second Monday finish in the tournament’s history.

After a day when the Old Course was left virtually defenceless by more rain – the high winds that had wreaked havoc on Saturday had dropped to a mere whiff – Irish amateur Paul Dunne shares the lead with South African Louis Oosthuizen and Australian Jason Day on 12-under-par.

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But lurking ominously a shot behind is American Jordan Spieth who came off the ropes fighting on the back nine after punching his golf bag in a fit of pique as he feared his Grand Slam dreams were starting to slip away.

Day, a perennial challenger in majors in recent years without being able to land one this far, said Spieth, bidding to become the first player since Ben Hogan in 1953 to win the first three majors in the same season, was now a “heavy favourite” after hauling himself back into the mix with a six-under-par 66. With so many players still in contention, though, the 21-year-old might well have to produce the best round of his career.

Time will tell if he has another one in the bag, but that’s certainly what Dunne, a 22-year-old Dubliner, conjured up as he became the first amateur to share the lead after three rounds in this event since the legendary Bobby Jones in 1927. The winner on that occasion here, Jones also triumphed three years later at Royal Liverpool. No amateur has tasted victory since then, but Dunne believes he can re-write the record books after moving into that three-way tie for the lead on the back of a flawless six-under-par 66. It was the best score by an amateur on the Old Course in an Open Championship and equalled the second best score by a non-paid player in the event, one behind Tom Lewis’s effort when he led after the opening round at Royal St George’s in 2011.

“It’s surreal that I’m leading the Open, but I can easily believe that I shot the three scores (69-69-66) I’ve shot here,” said Dunne, who raced to the turn in four-under 32 before picking up two more shots on the inward journey. “If we were playing an amateur event here, I wouldn’t be too surprised by those scores. It’s just lucky that it happens to be in the biggest event in the world. Hopefully I can do it again tomorrow, but whether I do or not, I’ll survive either way.”

In this event more than any of the other majors, the crowds love to see an amateur going toe-to-toe with the professionals. As Dunne climbed the leaderboard then eventually got to the top of it, you could feel a buzz of excitement building on a benign day in the Fife town.

“I had so much support from the crowd today that I felt I was back home,” he admitted. “I was getting cheered from start to finish, so big thanks to the crowd out there. They kept me lifted the whole way through. It was also great to play with Louis Oosthuizen. He’s a great role model for me, a great player and someone I look up to. It was such a fun day.”

It was one in which ten players either led outright or shared the lead. Dunne, who won the final qualifier at Woburn to get into this event, became one of them after reaching the turn with four birdies already on the card. “The number I had in my head today was 69, but once I got off to a good start on the front nine, I shifted it more towards 66,” admitted the University of Alabama graduate. Can he really become the first amateur since Jones to create a fairytale in this event?

“I don’t see why not,” he insisted. “I’m well capable of shooting the score that I need to win if everyone else doesn’t play their best. Whether it happens or not, I can’t really control it. I can just go out and try and play my own game and see where it leaves me. Hopefully I play great again and post a good number.”

Having regained his putting touch after suffering alignment problems for 27 holes, Spieth is undoubtedly the man to beat, though Oosthuizen, in particular, and also Day are big dangers to his hopes of moving on to next month’s US PGA Championship at Whistling Straits with a chance of becoming the first player to complete golf’s Grand Slam in the same season.

The last Claret Jug winner here in 2010, Oosthuizen stepped up his challenge for a second Old Course success with a 67 that contained seven birdies. “I love the style of golf you need to play here,” said the 32-year-old. “I feel very comfortable on this track and, from a confidence point of view, knowing I’ve done it before at this golf course is something I will take a lot from. Jordan is obviously looking at making history, so you can expect him to fire on all cylinders early and to be really up there. Jason is also playing unbelievable. There’s so many players that can still win this. I think it is going to be one of the tightest-ever Opens.”

Bidding to become the first Australian to get his mitts on the Claret Jug since Greg Norman in 1986, Day said he’d been rewarded for staying patient early on before picking up five birdies from the fifth onwards in a foot-perfect 67. That has given the 27-year-old a great chance to land his first major just three weeks after collapsing at Chambers Bay when suffering a vertigo attack. “What went on at the US Open was tough, so to be able to come back so soon and play the way I have here so far is very pleasing,” he admitted. “This isn’t my strongest event – my best finish is tied 30th – and I came here trying to change that this week. I feel healthy and I feel up to the challenge tomorrow.”

In truth, it’s quite astonishing that Spieth is heading into the final 18 holes just one off the lead. His preparation time was the shortest of the majority of the players up near the top of the leaderboard and this is his first competitive event on the Old Course. He was caught out by one of its slopes when a pitch to the 18th ran back down off the green into the Valley of Sin. But, after a 66, he has the whiff of another major win in his nostrils.

“I was missing putts on the left side, but I managed to adjust my alignment and once the putts started going in, I could take it deeper and deeper. I had the feeling it was there,” said the 21-year-old of an effort that hauled him right back into the picture after starting the day five behind overnight leader Dustin Johnson. “At this point it’s free-rolling,” added Spieth of the opportunity he’s given himself. “I want to win but, with a pretty bunched leaderboard, I’m going to have to play aggressive golf.”

Padraig Harrington, Justin Rose, Retief Goosen, Adam Scott and Zach Johnson are those other major champions close to the lead. No-one in that lot knows better than Harrington what it takes to claim the Claret Jug. Referring to his two previous victories – back-to-back at Carnoustie and Royal Birkdale – the Irishman said: “I’ll be using it as motivation. I’ll be telling myself that I’ve done it twice before and would rather be the guy in that position.”

It’s 24 hours later than expected, but the battle in store today for the right to become the 2015 Champion Golfer of the Year is certainly going to make that wait worthwhile.