Robin Burke was asked her thoughts on a 32-year-old competing in this week’s Curtis Cup Match at Dun Laoghaire Golf Club.
“I was 36 when I played [in 1998],” the USA captain said.
That was 18 years ago when mid-amateurs (25 and older) were consistently chosen for Curtis Cup Teams. But the USA hasn’t picked one since Meghan Stasi in 2008. The last one to represent Great Britain and Ireland going into the 2016 Match was Vicki Thomas in 1992.
Maria Dunne, 32, of Ireland ended the GB&I mid-amateur drought when she was one of two wild-card picks by the Ladies Golf Union Selection Panel in April. The top four eligible players from the Women’s World Amateur Golf Ranking™ and the top two off the LGU Order of Merit are automatic selections. The panel then selects the final two as wild cards. Dunne and Alice Hewson, 18, of England, got those spots.
“Honestly, you don’t even notice [Dunne’s age] because she has a great sense of humor and is young at heart,” said teammate Charlotte Thomas, who at 23 is the second-oldest player in the Match. “It’s like she’s our age.”
For years, older players and career amateurs were the backbone of the Curtis Cup. Names like Belle Robertson, Carol Semple Thompson, Mary McKenna, Anne Sander, Angela Bonallack and Barbara McIntire competed in a half-dozen or more Matches. Today juniors and college players dominate the rosters. The 2016 USA Team is the youngest in history (18.1) with seven teenagers and 21-year-old Monica Vaughn.
It’s rare for current GB&I players such as Bronte Law or Leona Maguire to compete in three Curtis Cups. The last American to play in three or more Curtis Cups before trying professional golf was JoAnne Gunderson Carner, more than 50 years ago (1958, ’60, ’62 and ’64).
Even Dunne was a bit shocked when the announcement was made on April 28. She thought her hopes were dashed when she failed to hold a late lead in the Helen Holm Scottish Women’s Open Championship at Troon.
“I had resigned myself to first reserve,” said Dunne. “I was disappointed in myself.”
But anxiety morphed into joy when Dunne received the news following a practice round at the Welsh Women’s Amateur. She and Olivia Mehaffey were both in the field and they shared a celebratory moment.
“I was over the moon to hear [I made the team] and it was a shock,” said Dunne, who is paired with Meghan MacLaren, of England, in the final Saturday foursomes match against the USA’s Bailey Tardy and Vaughn. “It was pretty special.”
Dunne, who grew up just outside of Dublin, had always been athletic. She was a soccer and Gaelic football goalkeeper, as well as a solid junior golfer. She received a full scholarship to play at Bethune-Cookman in Daytona Beach, Fla., a school with a predominantly African-American enrollment. The women’s golf team had five Europeans and three African Americans. Dunne relished the chance to compete against talented players, and she befriended Nikeda Cooks, a black golfer from Los Angeles who remains one of her best friends.
“I wouldn’t give it back for the world,” said Dunne of her college experience. “I lived in Florida and went to class in shorts every day.”
Unlike many collegians, Dunne didn’t turn professional after graduation in 2006. She returned to Ireland and now works in customer service at what she calls the finest driving-range facility in the country. Kinsealy Grange Golf Academy & Driving Range features 50 hitting bays, a pro shop and restaurant, and because it is not far from Portmarnock, one of the world’s great links courses, the 10-year-old facility gets plenty of business, especially during the summer.
Finding time to compete is a challenge, but Dunne, who married Bryan Leonard in 2014, structures her time carefully. Gym sessions in the morning before work, a little golf after work and evenings set aside to be with her husband. Bryan works on the family-owned farm, which produces vegetables for several area supermarkets. The two met outside a pub in her hometown of Skerries, north of Dublin on the Irish Sea. He doesn’t play golf, but is slowly learning the game.
“I’ve given him a few tips,” said Dunne, who because of her golf and work schedule has not yet taken a honeymoon with Bryan. “We plan on playing my home course [Skerries Golf Club] this summer. He’s been out watching. He’s very supportive of me. You need that kind of support to be successful.”
Eight years ago, Dunne thought her competitive golf days might be over. Years of sports had progressively stressed her back to the point where her doctor advised not competing until the condition dramatically improved. Dunne never had surgery, but had some injections to freeze the infected area. After a month, the pain started to subside. By 2011, she began thinking about returning to the national team for the 2012 Home Internationals, a competition between Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales.
“My first goal was to get back on that Irish Team,” she said. “It just happened that [the 2012] tournament was in Ireland. I really wanted to play for my country again.”
Dunne made the team. The next step was being selected for the 2013 European Team Championships. Then she was asked to represent Ireland in the 2014 Women’s World Amateur in Japan. Suddenly, playing in a Curtis Cup became a real possibility. Last year, she competed in the South American Amateur in Peru.
Her bosses at the driving range have been very supportive.
“Luckily, I work in the golf business,” she said. “They have given me every bit of time I need for the Curtis Cup.”
The facility even hung a banner at the entrance congratulating Dunne. Dunne said some of her customers didn’t realize that she’s an elite amateur golfer.
“Now everyone can see that their colleague is representing GB&I for the Curtis Cup, which is great,” said Dunne. “They’ll all be watching.”
During the player introductions at the opening ceremony on Thursday, Dunne received one of the loudest cheers. She is one of three Irishwomen on the team along with Mehaffey and Maguire. Living only 45 minutes from Dun Laoghaire, Dunne expects more than 200 supporters to attend. Some club members are coming on a bus.
Motivation certainly won’t be an issue. Dunne knows this might be her one and only opportunity to play in a Curtis Cup and she’s up for the challenge.
“As a rookie, I don’t think I’ll be nervous,” she said. “It won’t affect my game. Of course there will be a phenomenal amount of people out watching and this is a new experience for me as well. I’m just thrilled to be on the team.”
David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.