When Paul Dunne qualified for the US Open at Walton Heath, he insisted he wasn’t going to Erin Hills on a tourism trip.
“I am trying to make the top 20 in the Race to Dubai and there’s a $12m purse, so it’s a big week for me to do well and make a big dent in that goal,” he said.
“I am obviously going to the US Open to compete. Nobody arrives just to make up the numbers.”
Fast forward two weeks and Dunne strutted around Erin Hills with the air of a man on a mission. It might be his first US Open and his debut in a major as a pro, but having led The Open with a round to go at St Andrews in 2015, he insists he’s now a far better player and feels well-equipped now to deal with contending in a major.
It’s not that he believes he’s going to become the first qualifier to win the US Open since Michael Campbell in 2005 or that his driving is vastly improved. What makes Dunne a potential dark horse over the rolling hills of Wisconsin is a secret inner steel he says stems from an unshakeable knowledge of what makes him tick.
“I feel I’d be better now in the position I was in than I was then,” he said of how he might deal with the prospect of leading a major into the final round. “I’d be much better off now. That’s not saying that I’ll always get into that position. That week I had a course that suited me, I got the good side of a tough draw, and I was putting well.
“A lot of things have to go right to get in those positions, but I feel like I’d be well equipped to handle it if I got in there again. It’s just about mindset. It’s about learning yourself. Everyone ticks differently and it’s about learning what makes you tick. And getting yourself in the right place to want to move forward rather than stay where you are.”
Asked what makes him “tick” Dunne, smiled, looked at his coach Eric Eshelman (his college coach from his days at the University of Alabama) and smiled.
“I wouldn’t tell anyone that,” he said with a grin. “That’s just for me, for my own head. I haven’t even told my mum or dad or my girlfriend. I like to keep my mental stuff private. I’ll keep it close to the chest if that’s okay.”
Erin Hills is a vastly different beast to St Andrews in 2015 and while it looks like an inland links, it’s a true American course where a ground-to-air missile system will pay dividends. “You have to be a guy who hits it straight — not super-straight but relatively straight,” he said.
“Average drives don’t get punished here. It’s bad drives that miss the fairway that get really punished — minimum one shot penalty, and most likely two. You have got to drive it reasonably, every time. If you are fighting a big miss, it will be a struggle for the week. There are some intimidating tee shots.
“There is a lot of rough but the fairways are really wide. If you are driving it well, I still think you have scoring chances because the greens are quite small and they are rolling perfectly.
“If I drive it well and putt well, then everything else would have to be pretty bad for me not to do okay.”
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