If you know who Paul Dunne is, it’s likely because you watched him ascend to the top of the 2015 British Open leaderboard as an amateur, teeing off in the last group during the final round. That day didn’t go as well as he had hoped, but Dunne became the first amateur since 1927 to lead the British Open after 54 holes. Dunne is no longer an amateur, as he turned pro this fall, and we caught up with him to discuss that wild ride at St. Andrews and his successful transition to professional golf.
Lets rewind to July…you’re the last player to tee off in the final round of the British Open. You’re also an amateur. What’s going through your mind in that moment?
It sounds hard to believe, but I wasn’t any more nervous Sunday than I was on Saturday. When you’re in the environment of playing a tournament, you don’t really look at the bigger picture of it. You’re just trying to do as well as you can in that event. It exceeded my expectations to be leading in the final round, but it didn’t exceed my expectations to be 12-under. It just happened that 12-under was leading. Obviously, it’s a different environment than I’m used to being in, but that environment had just gradually risen all week. The crowds get bigger on Friday and a bit bigger again on Saturday and bigger on Sunday, so it was kind of a gradual ride.
You seemed extremely focused that day, almost gravely serious. Was it even fun?
It was a lot of fun. It was so fun just holing a putt from three feet, because you knew the crowd was going to go mental because I had so much support. Normally if it was just some amateur event and I was grinding over a 6-foot putt for par, if I holed it, you might get just a little fist pump. When the roars were that loud that week, all you could do is smile and laugh at it. When you’re playing well in an environment like that, it’s about as fun as golf gets.
What was it like finishing that final round on 18, even though it didn’t go as well as you had hoped?
On 18, the road on the right was full, about seven or eight people deep. The huge stand on the left and the huge stand behind the green were completely full as well. I walked off the 18th tee and Louis [Oosthuizen] put his arm around me, told me I should be proud of how I played and told me to enjoy the walk. It was a really nice touch from a classy guy. I really appreciated that.
You gained more than 20,000 Twitter followers that weekend. Were you aware that people were starting to take notice around the world?
Through the second round, I had my notifications turned on my phone for social media. I made the cut and tied the 36-hole amateur score and I started to get notifications coming in quite frequently, so I just turned them off. I had an ongoing joke with my brother, who is a sports nutritionist. He had more followers than me, so he always made the joke that I was the one in the family trying to be an athlete and he was the nutritionist with more followers than me.
My phone was still off following the third round press conference Sunday night. My brother gave me this look and said, “I think you passed me on the followers.”
This all came after four years of golf at Alabama-Birmingham. What pushed you toward school at UAB?
The head coach now is Alan Murray, who is originally from Bray, Ireland and used to play at Greystones Golf Club, where I grew up. He moved over to America when I was 15 or 16, taking the assistant coach job, and I just kept in contact with him. I wasn’t sure I wanted to go to school in America, he just told me to come over and see what I thought of it. So I went over on a visit and played the golf courses. I decided I would give it a try for one year and if I didn’t like it I could always go home. Once I went over there I found I really enjoyed the lifestyle and everything about it.
What did you enjoy most about being a college student in America?
I enjoyed living and playing with teammates all the time. The day-in, day-out competition is great. It’s also good to have eyes on your game from friends and teammates who know about golf. Obviously, though, the weather in the winter is much better than in Ireland.
Graeme McDowell is another well-known golfer from Ireland that went to UAB. Do you maintain relationships with any of the famous golfers from back home?
Yeah, I’ve played a few practice rounds with Graeme. He hosts an event each year in Birmingham, so I’ve met him a few times. In Portugal, I spent a good amount of time with Padraig Harrington. We went out to dinner, even though he took some money off me in the practice round. Shane Lowry has been very good to all the Irish amateur golfers. He’s had meetings with us and our parents about turning pro, what he thinks he did well and what mistakes he made turning pro.
I’m trying not to leave anyone out. I’ve never met Rory [McIlroy]. If I’m ever playing with him, that means I’m in a pretty good position. Hopefully soon. I’d love to play against him in the future, but my game has a long way to go before I can think about that. I had some great times with Paul McGinley over the last couple of months. He came down to meet our whole international team last summer to wish us luck. This year, he came to give our Walker Cup team a talk. He gave me his number and I played a practice round with him in Kingsbarns the day before the Dunhill. Then we went out for dinner. Then, before the last round of the Dunhill we talked on the phone for about 45 minutes as well. He’s been really good with his time. Obviously he has a lot of experience.
What are your plans for Tour play?
Everything is so up in the air when you’re just starting out. I’m hoping to get through European Tour Q School and get through that way. That’s priority number one. If I get through Q School, then I can start to formulate a schedule. I’m not looking to far ahead of that. I’m trying to take things as they come. If I keep getting better, the status and starts will follow. (Editor’s note: Dunne earned his European Tour card on November 19 after a successful run in Q School.)
What is the biggest thing that has changed in your life now that you’re playing for money?
I have to keep my receipts. That’s about it. When I was playing as an amateur I was lucky enough to either be playing with the Golf Union of Ireland with their support, or with the support of UAB. When we go away to tournaments, we were always told where to be and when. The GUI and UAB would pick up the tab at tournaments. Now, it’s just the same, but I’m by myself. Obviously, I can get paid at the end of the week, but that’s not what I’m thinking about. The main thing is I’m not traveling with a team, so you don’t have a roommate every week or a set group of guys you go out to dinner with all the time. It’s a little more on your own that way.
I’m making the transition to professional golf the same time a lot of my good friends are, so hopefully all of us can get through Q School and travel the European Tour just like we did the amateur circuit.