“I went from having a chance to losing by three shots,” said McIlroy of seeing his hopes of a first win this season dashed by Dunne as the 24-year-old closed with a sensational nine-under-par 61 at the Northumberland venue.
In fairness, McIlroy couldn’t have done any more in front of a last-day crowd of just under 15,000 that took the total for the four tournament days to an excellent 60,180. Closing rounds of 64 and 63, after all, constituted his lowest-ever weekend total as a professional.
After picking up five birdies in the last seven holes as a strengthening wind started to be a factor in the Tyne Valley, McIlroy finished on 17-under to get within a shot of Dunne as he stood on the 17th tee.
His hopes of maybe getting into a play-off, though, disappeared as Dunne, who led the 2015 Open at St Andrews as an amateur before dropping away following a 78, confidently rolled in a five-foot birdie putt at the penultimate hole before raising a huge cheer from the crowd in the grandstands as he then chipped in from between two bunkers at the par-3 18th.
“I’m absolutely thrilled,” admitted Dunne afterwards, having come close to making the breakthrough earlier in the season when he was pipped by Italian Edoardo Molinari in a play-off for the Hassan Trophy in Morocco.
“Last season, when I was fighting to hang on to my card, my Sunday performances were not that strong. But that’s something I’ve improved this season. I’m tougher mentally and I feel excited about trying to move up the leaderboard. I went out today to try and win rather than have someone hand it to me and to beat players of the calibre of Rory in achieving that definitely gives me a sense of satisfaction.”
While it was a magnificent display from the Dublin-born player – he broke away at the top of a packed leaderboard following three birdies in the first five holes with an eagle-3 at the sixth – luck also shone on him. His pulled approach at the 11th hit a sprinkler head and spun sideways towards the hole, enabling him to make a birdie.
“I’ve never seen anything like that,” admitted Dunne, smiling. “But I’m not going to complain. I’ve had some good breaks in my career and I’ve had some bad ones. That was a great break at the right time.”
In an injury-plagued season, this was McIlroy’s best performance since he finished runner-up to Graeme Storm in the SA Open in January. The four-time major winner was heartened by an effort that came in his penultimate event of the year before taking a three-month break and heaped praise on the winner.
“It was just good to have a chance of winning – that was the big thing,” admitted McIlroy, who made 14 birdies over the closing 36 holes and dropped just one shot. “I thought if I could finish on 17-under, I might have a chance. I did everything I wanted to do today; it just wasn’t quite good enough in the end.
“For Paul to shoot 61 to secure his first win is incredibly impressive. I’m pleased for him because he works hard on his game and he’s been knocking on the door.”
Richie Ramsay, who started the day a shot off the lead, finished joint-eighth after he had to settle for a 69 in the company of Dunne. It wasn’t the end Ramsay had been looking for, but it was a week that still produced plenty of positives for the Aberdonian. Picking up two birdies in the last three holes certainly didn’t go amiss as he cemented his top-25 position in the Race to Dubai.
“I’m happy but it’s the same story of what could have been – again,” he said. “My patience is starting to run out over being unable to hole enough putts. But I’m not far away from getting the job done.”