Precocious Paul Dunne on cusp of history at St Andrews

22-year-old Greystones amateur leads The Open Championship going into final round

You could sense a stirring in the air, of the ghosts of old champions approving of what Paul Dunne was contriving to achieve. Not since the legendary Bobby Jones won his third Claret Jug in 1930, an age ago, has an amateur won this oldest championship of all; yet, on this Sunday of the 144th Open, a 22-year-old Irishman strode those old fairways as if born to the famed links to share the 54-holes lead alongside a couple of golfing millionaires.

Louis Oosthuizen, a springbok who bound his way to victory here in 2010, and Jason Day, an Australian who has knocked on the door so frequently in Majors without any deliverance, joined Dunne on 214, 12-under-par, as the weather-affected championship reached its three-quarters point.

And, if the presence of Dunne amidst the leaders wasn't surreal enough, there was also Jordan Spieth, chasing a historic third leg of the Grand Slam, lurking just a stroke further back. For good measure, Pádraig Harrington, reclaiming his old zest and doggedness, shot a 65 for 216 to get into the mix, alone in fifth, and on the scent of a fourth career Major.

None of them, though, could do any crystal balling gazing, for this championship has schemed to provide a storyline of plots almost beyond belief. The final pieces of the elaborate jigsaw won’t fall into place until the final round, with only three shots separating the top 14 players. Who could possibly guess which way it would go?

At the centre of it all so far, a player who was mistaken for Spieth at the start of the week by a number of autograph seekers due to the Under Armour logo: there’s no case of mistaken identity anymore, for Dunne - in shooting rounds of 69-69-66 - has created his right to belong on the biggest golfing stage of all. The silver medal as leading amateur is within his grasp; but, more so, the Claret Jug itself is also, tantalisingly within reach.

Could he think of winning? “I’m not really going to think about winning, or where I’m going to finish until the last few holes. I can’t control what other people do. Everyone could go out and shoot 63 or everyone could shoot 75. All I can do is control committing to my shots and hopefully (that) leaves me in good stead at the end of the day.”

In Sunday’s third round, a day which sharply contrasted with the high winds that disrupted Saturday’s play and led to a rescheduling of the best laid of plans, Dunne - inwardly nervous, outwardly composed - made a significant move with a bogey free 66 that moved him upwards to a share of the lead. But it wasn’t plain sailing for everyone.

For example, Dustin Johnson, the 36-holes leader, stumbled his way to a 75 which featured three closing bogeys. It dropped the American down to tied-18th, five shots adrift. And Danny Willett, too, was undone by three late bogeys, which included a tee-shot over the out-of-bounds wall on the 14th.

There were no such slips by Dunne; nor, for that matter, by Harrington. Both stayed bogey-free. For Harrington, it was a return to old ways in his bid to add to the titles he won at Carnoustie in 2007 and Birkdale in 2008; for Dunne, it was brand new territory.

Dunne – a graduate in Business Finance from the University of Alabama Birmingham, and with his college coach and fellow-Greystones man Alan Murray on his bag – claimed four birdies in an outward run of 32, opening his assault with a wonderfully judged wedge from 123 yards to 18 inches on the first hole. He then claimed two further birdies, on the 10th and 15th, on the homeward run for his 66 which constituted the lowest third round score in the history of the Open by an amateur.

On the famed 17th, Dunne hit a four-iron approach from 220 yards to 20 feet but narrowly missed with the birdie attempt. His playing partner Oosthuizen, who will again be alongside him for the final round, described Dunne’s approach as an “amazing shot . . . he deserved to birdie that.”

So far, Dunne’s strategy - developed in the practice rounds with Murray - has worked like a dream. Again, could he win? “I don’t see why not. I mean, I’m well capable of shooting the scores that I need to win if everyone else doesn’t play their best.” History beckons.

Philip Reid

Philip Reid

Philip Reid is Golf Correspondent of The Irish Times