Paul Dunne: Reflections on the weekend when my dreams became reality at British Open
From the long-haul journey to St Andrews and world recognition to the sound bump on return to earth
We all had our own ways of getting to St Andrews. I know Jordan Spieth and Zach Johnson were among those who hopped on the charter flight from the John Deere Classic but my journey was quite different. I’d been playing for Ireland in the European Team Championships in Sweden and we had about a three-hour train ride down to Copenhagen, a flight to Dublin, where I had to stay for some time in the airport, and then caught another flight to Edinburgh.
I arrived in Edinburgh pretty late on Sunday night and went straight to our rented house in Elie, a town about 20 miles from St Andrews. My mam, dad and Alan Murray were already there and had sent me the address. I just went straight into the house, didn’t knock on the door or anything, and walked straight into someone else’s house. I was nearly attacked by their dog and the people came out laughing, and then pointed me in the right direction – around the side of their house – where I needed to go. It had been a long day and I was tired and I didn’t bother setting any alarm. I just slept until I woke up.
When I arrived at St Andrews on Monday, the first thing I did was to register in the clubhouse. There were a few desks with administration staff, you sit down, sign your name, give your contact details for the week, get your player’s ID badge, tickets for your family and they give you a locker key. There was a good luck note in mine from Titleist, with a couple of dozen golf balls and four gloves for the week.
I hadn’t organised any practice round but I met Shane Lowry at lunch and he told me he was due to play with G-Mac. Did I want to play? It couldn’t have worked out any better if you’d planned it. I went to practice for a couple of hours before we headed out. Shane played the first five holes with us, along with Daniel Brooks, and then Graeme and myself played from six to 18, just the two of us and not a lot of people.
At one point, Graeme took a photo of me from behind and put it onto his Twitter account with a contest with a prize for the first person to guess who I was. In the first 30 guesses, there were 28 Jordan Spieths and two Vijay Singhs. My Irish team-mate Cormac Sharvin was actually the first to correctly get the answer.
I made a point of playing practice rounds with different players. On Tuesday, I played with Matteo Manassero – Cormac’s uncle, Brian, is his caddie – and Francesco Molinari and Ben An and Danny Lee joined us. On Wednesday I was due to play with Brooks Koepka but he didn’t want to play because it was raining. I went out on my own, starting on 17, and Adam Scott, who was on the 16th, asked could he play the last few holes with me. He played 17, 18 and the first and then I met up with Ollie Schniederjans. It was great to play with so many different players, to get different perspectives on how to play the course. I spoke to everyone, about where to hit it, how to avoid different bunkers, learnt different things every day. Everyone I played with was very good about it, it is not like unlocking the secrets, you want to know where you have to hit it.
Thursday, July 16th –First Round
I’d gone to bed at eight o’clock the night before. I never go to bed that early. I couldn’t get to sleep and it was probably half 10 before I slept. I’d a 6.43am tee time and had set seven alarms, to go off every two minutes, from 4am to 4.15m. I got up at a quarter past, and was the last one up. Everyone else in the house was up, afraid I would sleep in. I had a bowl of muesli and a yoghurt and was off the course. I was ready.
Before I go out, I give myself a number in my head. It’s something I used to do years ago, playing in boys’ events, but had stopped doing. I started doing it again during the NCAAs in the last round when I had a chance to win there and have continued doing since. I found that putting a number in my head focused me on shooting a score. My target was a 68.
I got off to a quick start and birdied the first two, got really good yardages which meant I could spin it a lot. I birdied the Par 5 fifth and got an unlikely birdie on the ninth, where I made a long one. Part of the gameplan I had drawn up with Alan (Murray) was to make no bogeys and I was disappointed to three-putt from the edge of the 11th. I was happy to par my way in, happy enough with 69 even though it was a shot more than I had in my head.
Afterwards, I had lunch, did some short game practice and went back to the house and slept for a couple of hours. My mam and my brother David made dinner for us – the nine of us staying in the house – and afterwards I either watched TV or went to my room, which was the only place I could get Wifi. If I wanted to go on my phone, do social media or whatever, I had to go to my room. If I wanted to watch the golf on TV, I’d go to the livingroom. It was a nice little separation.
Friday, July 17th – Second Round
I’d looked at the forecast the night before it said it would rain until 11, then the wind would drop and get back up at four. I was meant to be out at 11.43am. I literally had the perfect tee time, I couldn’t believe it. But when I woke up, I saw there was a three hour delay and I was thinking: “Oh, now I am going to get the windy part of the day.”
By the time I got to play, late in the afternoon, the wind direction had changed. The first day it was down off the right on the front nine and off the left on the back nine, playing really tough. It had completely flipped and the front nine was straight off the left and the back nine was straight off the right, so the whole course was playable. It didn’t make any hole too long in the crosswinds. You just had to control the flight of the ball, so there were birdies on both sides. I had a number again, I thought 70 would be good.
I got off to a slow start and, on nine, I had a wedge shot in. I said to Alan, “it’s about time I hit one close”. I managed to hit one into about three feet and my round started. I birdied 14. On the 15th, I had a six-iron in and I noticed Tiger Woods was standing about five yards from me, waiting to play number four. “Go ahead,” he said. I hadn’t been nervous all day but was so nervous playing that shot, because Tiger was watching me. It made no sense. I hit a good one and made three.
The thought of just making the cut had never entered my head going out. I knew I was hitting it well enough not to have to worry about shooting three- or four-over in a cross wind, that I wasn’t going to make a heap of bogeys in a row. I shot 69 again. My first day’s number had been 68, my second day 70 – so two 69s was pleasing. I was spot on.
My two playing partners, Todd Hamilton and James Hahn, both missed the cut and wished me well. James told me he hoped to see me on the PGA Tour with him some day. It was late, so we all ate at the course that night; and because play hadn’t finished, I set my alarm for nine o’clock the next morning to see when I would be playing again.
Saturday, July 18th – Completion of Second Round
I slept well, knowing there was no early start for me. As it turned out, the high winds meant those completing their second rounds didn’t get very far.
I didn’t do much. Once I got word I wouldn’t be playing, I went out with my brother and sister and ma out to the beach and threw a rugby ball around. It wasn’t like we were tackling each other. So, it was either throwing the ball or just resting for most of the day.
About five o’clock, I went up to the course and did some work just to stay loose really, more a matter of maintenance. I spent two hours there, hit balls for about 45 minutes, chipped for 20 minutes and putted for the rest of the time. When we were in college in UAB, Alan always set up putting games and chipping games for us. We just did that, set up some games, see how many you could make out of a certain amount from around the hole, then just went back and had some dinner.
We were joined by Shane Lowry, Neil Manchip, his wife Aideen and son Hugo – their house was about 150 yards away from ours – and we were just having a general chat.
The text with the tee times came about 10 and I saw I was playing with Louis Oosthuizen, which was cool. Once I had my tee time it was just normal, just get ready for another round of golf.
Sunday, July 19th – Third Round
That morning, my brother made some of these protein pancakes that he loves, which are great with some berries. I had them for breakfast and went back to sleep. The courtesy car was due to pick us up at half 11 and the drive in from Elie was quite scenic. We didn’t get any traffic until we reached St Andrews and we were waved through by the police.
A lot more support had arrived from home, which was brilliant. I was nervous. You’re looking down at the club and it is shaking a little bit in your hands but I got off to a really settled start. I hit a my second shot into the first really close and made (birdie) three, a low one with a couple of bounces and a little spin. I got lucky on four, blocked my tee shot but it just sneaked pass the bunker. I had eight iron and hit it to 25 feet and made it.
I started hitting our targets, playing for no bogeys and to let the birdies come. I made a mistake on seven, where I hit my tee shot a little close to the green. I couldn’t get any spin, tried to run it up, didn’t get it up and it came back down. I’d a really tough putt, up and over some ridges and then downhill downwind, and I wasn’t even trying to make it, just trying to two-putt, and it went in.
All the way around, every shot I hit, even the mediocre ones, got a huge roar. I shot a 66 and had given myself good looks at other birdies. I didn’t know I was leading until I got in afterwards. I had to do the BBC, Radio 5, The Golf Channel, ESPN, more radio, go live on Japanese TV and then the sit-down press conference in the media centre.
All that took a while, so we all had a late dinner at the course, went back to the house. I didn’t know how crazy everything had got back home. The social media was going nuts, so I turned the notifications off, turned my phone off and went to sleep.
Monday, July 20th – Fourth Round
Every day Alan went up to the course first, walked the course, looked at the pins and scoped out any interesting details or things we needed to note. He was gone by eight. I got the courtesy car at half 11, the same time as Sunday, with my brother and his two friends, Andrew Ford and John Coakley. The three of them are a bit mental, very funny and very sarcastic, so I’d just stay quiet, be an observant listener, and let the three of them joke around.
At the course, I signed autographs, maybe a couple of hundred, and I felt just the same as I did on Sunday. I didn’t feel any more pressure, any more nerves. One thing was on my mind: the forecast was for quite a bit of rain. I don’t mind wind. When it rains, I struggle a little bit with my grip because I kind of hang my right arm down and let it sit on the club from the side. That was maybe on my mind a little bit when I was warming up.
I remember thinking it was pretty cool to walk onto the putting green – near the first tee – and there was just Louis, Spieth and Jason Day, just the four of us. I remember staying up late when I was playing the Brabazon Trophy to watch the US Open and we were watching Lowry to see how he would do and all of those guys were in contention.
I didn’t get off to a settled start. I hit my tee shot down the left on the first, which was actually a good angle in. I’d 145 yards in, with the wind off the left, and I was trying to step on a wedge. I just hit it fat. It was a shot I hadn’t seen before. I have never duffed a wedge, it is usually the best part of my game. Maybe I just tried to hit it too hard and caught it heavy.
Then, on the second, the club just slipped a little bit on the downswing. It went off the planet right. I was lucky to find it. That drive on the second, I hadn’t hit a shot like that in a long, long time and the shot on the first I had never hit. Those two shots rattled me a little bit in the way I had seen shots I didn’t think were in my locker. It kind of throws your mind because you don’t know if you are going to do it again.
But I settled back into it, made a really nice birdie on three to a tough pin, birdied the Par 5 fifth and got back to level. The difference to other days was I gave myself good looks on six, seven, eight and nine but didn’t make any of them. I knew I was in trouble because the back nine was playing so difficult. Then, I had a shot into 10, from the middle of the fairway, and hit it heavy with a wedge. To do it a second time in a day really startled me. That’s when I got a little let down, that it had slipped away. I tried on every shot but once you had that goal in your head (of the Claret Jug) and you knew it was gone, it was hard to get up for the last few holes like I needed to. I didn’t even think of the Silver Medal.
Jordan Spieth came up to me outside the recorder’s area. He shook my hand and said: “Nice playing this week, be very proud of yourself.”
I saw him again in the lockerroom and we had another chat. The players were really nice. Justin Rose came up to me. Adam Scott. Rickie Fowler, Geoff Ogilvy. David Howell. Harrington. G-Mac. I got some nice messages from Lowry, so it was nice to have the support and feel respected by players that are that good in the game.
By Tuesday, I was back with the Walker Cup squad in Lytham for a gathering, to look at the course. It was strange on the first tee, just three people watching us hit off. They were joking. “On the tee from Greystones . . . Paul Dunne. ” It was a lot different to Monday when there were 20,000 people shouting as I hit off. But it was good. I’ve great friends on the golf scene and it was good to see them again.