RABAT, MOROCCO | For anyone who was following Paul Dunne at the Trophée Hassan II the past few days – and remembering his stunning performance as an amateur at the Open Championship two years ago when he stood atop the leaderboard after three days with heavyweights Jason Day and Louis Oosthuizen – it was hard not to see similarities in the two situations. In both cases, the young Irishman was leading the field after 54 holes. And each time he went into the final round in search of his first professional tour triumph.
Sadly for Dunne, history repeated itself in another way, as he was not able to break his maiden on Sunday. But this wasn’t blowing up on the big stage that is the Old Course at St. Andrews, where he staggered to a final-round 78 that left him tied for 30th at the end of the 2015 Open.
Rather it was a supremely talented and determined 24-year-old making five birdies and firing a 1-under-par 72. And disappointing as it might have been, his playoff loss to Italian Edoardo Molinari and second-place finish in this tourney was another indication that Dunne is adjusting to life as a professional golfer and closer to being a regular contender on the European Tour.
“I hit the ball the way I wanted to today,” he said after his round Sunday. “But it was just one of those days when it came to getting a few bad breaks and not having enough of my putts fall. All in all, I am happy with my form, and I am looking forward to next week and the tournament in China.”
Dunne wasn’t always looking forward to hitting the road last year, his first full season on the European Tour, and he spoke candidly about the difficulties of making the transition from amateur to professional. “As an amateur golfer, you generally travel as part of a team, and it is easier that way,” said Dunne, a sturdy lad who stands 5 feet 8. “But as a professional golfer, you are on your own a lot. In airports. In hotels. And that is not always easy. I went through a difficult stretch last year as a result. But these days, I feel a lot more comfortable out here.”
Dunne has demonstrated that this spring by tying for sixth at the Tshwane Open in South Africa in March. It was his best finish since earning his tour card in Fall 2015 and only the third time he worked his way that high on the leaderboard in 38 tournaments. Then came his second-place finish in Morocco.
His week here did not get off to the strongest of starts when he opened the tournament, which is held on the esteemed Robert Trent Jones-designed Red Course at the Royal Dar Es Salam Golf Club, with an even-par 73. Dunne said he had been playing well recently, attributing his travails that day to rust that had accumulated during a four-week break in the European Tour schedule. And he felt confident he would get better as the week went on. Which is exactly what he did with successive rounds of 69, and at one point Sunday he led by as many as three strokes. But Molinari twice went birdie-eagle on the back nine and then made a par to best Dunne in the playoff.
To be sure, Dunne found it a tough loss to take in many ways. But he is still living a dream that started to take hold when he was a youngster in Co. Wicklow, Ireland. He was 10 years old when he started playing golf, and for several years it competed for his interest with Gaelic football and tennis, both of which he played with considerable skill. But in time, Dunne decided to focus on golf, and he quickly became one of the top juniors in Éire, taking two consecutive Irish Junior Boys Championships, in 2008 and 2009, and the Irish Youth Amateur title in 2010. He then followed a trail blazed by Ulsterman Graeme McDowell by enrolling at the University of Alabama-Birmingham and playing on the golf team there as he also earned a degree in business finance.
It was the summer after his senior year at UAB that Dunne dazzled the golf world with his play in the 2015 Open at St. Andrews, starting off with a pair of 69s and then recording a superlative 66 on Saturday that landed him in the last group for the final round. Later that year, he helped the GB&I team win the Walker Cup, and then he earned his European Tour card. He shot 64 in his first round as a professional, at the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in St. Andrews, and ended up tied for 19th.
The sense back then was that Paul Dunne was on his way. His performance at this year’s Trophée Hassan II shows that is so, even if there have been some bumps along the road.