Friday, 12 June 2009

Alan Dunbar wins Links Trophy

Back in 2000, when Graeme McDowell was winning every amateur tournament in sight, a ten-year-old fellow Rathmore member - Alan Dunbar, was just starting out in the game. Every day after school he would be seen around the clubhouse or out on the Valley links. But through watching Graeme's successes he had instilled the belief that with enough practice and dedication he could perhaps one day make a name for himself also.

He gradually worked his handicap down and made his way through the provincial and national coaching systems. In 2008 he captured the Ulster Youths (under 21) title, and helped Ireland win the Home Internationals at Muirfield.

But it wasn't until his stunning display of links golf at St Andrews last week until he really hit the headlines. The Links Trophy is one of the most prestigious tournaments in amateur golf. It is rated second only behind The Amateur Championship in terms of importance, and consistently attracts some of the top golfers from around the world. This is highlighted by the handicap prerequisite, with the cut off point this year falling at +2.4.

This meant Dunbar was only placed on the reserve list, but because of withdrawals he was called up to the main field a few days before the tournament. It shows just how much faith the Rathmore members have in Dunbar that a local bank manager - Keith Elliott, took time off work to bring him over to the event and caddie.

With nine holes to play, Dunbar was sitting at -1 and four shots back of Welsh golfer Rhys Enoch at -5. However a combination of the wind, the length of the course (played off Open Championship tees) and the pressure of being in contention saw a few of the leaders finish the tournament outside red numbers.

On 16, Dunbar set up on a line right of the Principal's Nose bunkers and hit one of the longest, straightest drives I was ever witnessed on that hole to leave a sand wedge approach. This was no mean feat considering the bulk of the field were hitting 3-wood, 5-iron. A beautifully nipped shot from the fairway left him 10 feet right of the hole, and a putt which looked short just about trickled into the cup for birdie.

Another colossal drive on perhaps the most dangerous driving hole in championship golf left him a short iron into the Road Hole. With maturity beyond his years he took the infamous bunker out of play and aimed 15 yards right of the pin. An excellent long putt rolled up to three feet of the hole, and all of a sudden with the leaderboard perched over the back of the green he saw he had an opportunity to win. However on a devilish green, his putt horseshoed around the cup and he had to settle for a five.

This would have been enough to knock many more seasoned campaigners out of sync, but he stepped up the tee and again struck an enormous drive down the final fairway. Because of the opposing wind, he was left with 109 yards to the hole and so pulled out his 52 degree wedge for the biggest shot of his career to date. He kept his nerve and played a beautiful approach to ten feet. He wasn't to know at this stage, but this putt was for the tournament, and he nervelessly rolled it in centre-cup. With his closest pursuers continuing to struggle, he found out ten minutes later that he was to be the first ever Irish winner of The St Andrews Links Trophy.

With Walker Cup captain Colin Dalgleish in attendance throughout, he may need to clear his diary for the biennial contest against the USA which is this year being held at Merrion in September. And based on the success of his new found bagman, Keith Elliott may also need to clear his...

After the presentation, Alan joined my father and I for a celebratory beer in The New Golf Club which overlooks the 18th fairway. Something he said will stick in my mind for a long time to come. He asked his caddie Keith if they could drive past the R&A Clubhouse to have a look at the course just one more time before they left for home. This is a boy who had just won one the biggest amateur competitions in world golf, and he was still in awe of his surroundings and the turf on which he had just played golf. Humble to the core, and not only a prodigious talent on the fairways - but a gentleman to boot.

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