ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — No one wanted to pick up the phone in the bar at Greystones Golf Club, in County Wicklow, Ireland, on Sunday evening.
Who could blame them?
They were all glued to the TV, hooting and hollering, as one of their own, 22-year-old Paul Dunne, raced up the leaderboard in the third round of the 144th Open Championship in his quest to become the first amateur to win the Open since Bobby Jones in 1930. About 150 members were squeezed into a space better suited for 80. The pints were flowing and would keep flowing deep into the night.
“It hasn’t even got going yet,” said Barry David, an assistant pro, who finally conceded and grabbed the receiver. This was moments after Dunne had drained his par putt on the 17th hole to keep the lead at 12-under, eliciting a throaty roar from the Greystones faithful. “There’ll be a bit of a party here later tonight, I’d say.”
Dunne is still a long way from history, of course. There’s no telling how he will react in the cauldron of the final pairing Monday with 2010 Open champion Louis Oosthuizen, with the likes of Jason Day, Jordan Spieth and two-time Open winner Padraig Harrington hot in pursuit. But as Dunne faced the press Sunday evening after signing for a six-under 66, he did not look or sound overwhelmed by the moment.
“Yeah, it's surreal I'm leading the Open, but I can easily believe that I shot the three scores that I shot,” Dunne said of his 69-69-66 start. “If we were playing an amateur event here, I wouldn't be too surprised by the scores I shot. 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, you know, I'll survive either way.”
Dunne, who graduated from the University of Alabama-Birmingham in May, paid his old club a visit just a couple of weeks ago. On the rolling layout set between the Wicklow Mountains and the Irish Sea, he fired a 6-under 63 to tie the course record. Several weeks earlier, he had finished fifth at the 2015 NCAA Championships at Concession Golf Club in Bradenton, Fla. The head professional at Greytsones was in the gallery at Concession and came away suitably impressed by Dunne’s form.
“My boss said, ‘There’s no way he’ll miss the cut [at St. Andrews],’” David said. “‘He’s hitting it too bloody well.’”
Actually, Dunne is fortunate to be in the field at all. He qualified for the Open by shooting a 65 at Woburn Golf Club, in England, last month. After warming up for that round, he didn’t leave sufficient time for the shuttle ride from the range to the first tee, where he was scheduled to go off at 8:15 a.m.
“Luckily when I got out of the van there was a starter looking at the van asking if there was a Paul Dunne there,” Dunne told the Irish Times. “So I was lucky to get there at 8:15 and get going.”
This is Dunne’s second Open start. He played last year at Royal Liverpool, but missed the cut by two, blaming his shaky form on nerves. At St. Andrews this week, he has exhibited few signs of jitters. Dunne did admit to being nervous over three tee shots Sunday — at the first, 14th and 17th holes — but said the galleries emboldened him.
“Every shot I hit was getting cheered from start to finish,” he said. “It kind of felt like I was at home.”
Having his college coach and fellow Irishman, Alan Murray, on the bag has also helped keep Dunne calm. Dunne’s college teammate, Will Cannon, was watching the ESPN telecast Sunday from his apartment just off the UAB campus.
“He’s going to be okay mentally tomorrow,” Cannon said by phone on Sunday evening. “That’s a testament to Coach Murray. He knows how to keep us relaxed in big moments.”
Dunne’s driving accuracy can sometimes let him down, but Cannon noticed that his pal has been hitting fairways this week by aiming up the left side of the landing zones and relying on a cut shot. His strength is his putter and short game.
“There aren’t many better wedge players in the world,” Cannon said
Should he prevail, Dunne would be the second Irish-born player after Harrington to clutch the claret jug. He said he has fond memories of watching Harrington win at Carnoustie in 2007 and Birkdale in 2008.
“I've watched those videos over and over again,” he said. “So has everyone in my family, I think.”
“If I don’t win,” said Harrington, who is two back after a third-round 65. “I hope he does.”
To become the first amateur to win a major since Johnny Goodman at the 1933 U.S. Open, Dunne also will have to ward off the hottest player on the planet in the 21-year-old Spieth. When asked about Dunne’s chances, Spieth said this wasn’t the first time he’s seen a young amateur play a major like a hardened veteran.
“I would say I'm not extremely surprised,” he said, also referring to 21-year-old Jordan Niebrugge, another amateur who is just three off the pace after a third-round 67. “I think in years to come, you're going to see more and more of it. The amateur game has changed to be more like the professional game in the way that there's more tournaments, there's better golf courses, harder golf courses and better competition. That's what I felt like when I was playing junior golf into amateur golf. It was almost a mini-PGA Tour.”
Still, that doesn’t take anything away from what Dunne has accomplished this week, or what he could potentially accomplish Monday.
“It’s unfathomable to think about,” said Dunne’s college buddy Cannon. “Last year we joked with him and texted him, ‘Go win this thing.” Now he’s in the final pairing. I think he has a great chance.”