U.S. SENIOR AMATEUR
Dunne Deal: Jimmy Dunne Making USGA Debut at Long Last August 23, 2018 | Eugene, Ore. By David Shefter, USGA

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“Every good thing that could ever happen to a person has happened to me.” – Jimmy Dunne

 

For a man who has everything – and accomplished almost everything – Jimmy Dunne had one glaring void in his life. The senior managing partner at Sandler O’Neill & Partners, a highly successful Wall Street investment banking firm, can claim memberships and club championships at some of the most coveted venues in golf. Eight years ago, he shot a 63 to set a course record at Shinnecock Hills, a magical round that included an ace on the par-3 11th hole.

In business and golf, there are few people who don’t know this gregarious individual. Dunne is just as adept chatting with CEOs and PGA Tour stars as he is with caddies and club staff. He has developed friendships with some of golf’s biggest names – Justin Thomas and Rickie Fowler stayed at his eastern Long Island residence during the 118th U.S. Open this past June.

But all of his net worth, acquaintances and memberships couldn’t buy him a spot in the one exclusive club he desperately wanted to join: USGA championship competitor.

That lifelong endeavor to qualify for a USGA championship finally came to fruition on July 30 at Tavistock Country Club in Haddonfield, N.J., where the 61-year-old New York native played his way into the 64th U.S. Senior Amateur Championship at Eugene (Ore.) Country Club by shooting a 1-over 73 to earn one of the four available berths.

“What I love about [USGA championships] is it’s utterly a meritocracy,” said Dunne. “It doesn’t matter what school you went to, it doesn’t matter who your boss was, it doesn’t matter what capital you have. What matters is you’ve got to shoot the number, and I did it. And I’m really happy about that.”

So was the golf world. Not long after he qualified, social media was abuzz with Thomas, the 2017 PGA champion, sending out a congratulatory tweet that received nearly 1,500 likes. Two-time USGA champion Marvin “Vinny” Giles was one of the first to fire off a text. Good friend and fellow Pine Valley member Bill McGuinness, a 16-time USGA qualifier who hosted Dunne for a practice round at Tavistock four days earlier, said the buzz around the club was “unbelievable.”

McGuinness, who was in the field but shot 77 to miss by four strokes, added: “I’ve been playing golf for almost 50 years now and that day at Tavistock was one of the happiest days I’ve ever been on a golf course. And it was all because of Jimmy. It had nothing to do with me. I’d have loved to qualify, but I’d really rather have Jimmy do it. It was a great day for golf.”

Many are quite familiar with Dunne’s story – Golf Channel aired an emotionally charged feature about him during this year’s U.S. Open – and how golf literally saved his life. In 2001, Dunne was enjoying a solid summer of golf when he decided to enter the U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship. Many friends encouraged him to do it after seeing him succeed on the club level for several years.

The registration form was sitting on his desk when his best friend, Chris Quackenbush, an attorney with Sandler O’Neill, made a life-altering suggestion.

Dunne was going to sign up for the Sept. 10 qualifier at Round Hill Club in Greenwich, Conn., when Quackenbush mentioned that Bedford (N.Y.) Golf & Tennis Club might suit his game better. The Bedford qualifier was scheduled for Sept. 11.

“I wouldn’t normally take his advice on golf, although he was a good golfer,” said Dunne. “I just picked [up the registration form], signed it and put down Bedford on the 11th.”

Dunne went to Bedford and just a few holes into the qualifier, word came that a pair of planes had hit the World Trade Center. Sandler O’Neill’s office was on the 104th floor of the South Tower. Quackenbush, Paris and 64 others, including Dunne’s mentor, Herman Sandler, perished in the terrorist attacks. Dunne knows if he had chosen the Sept. 10 qualifier, he would have been in the office that day and likely not survived.

Jimmy Dunne (left) lost his best friend, Chris Quackenbush, in the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. (Jimmy Dunne/Golf Channel)

“I think about 9/11 several times a day,” said Dunne, his voice cracking. “I don’t think about Bedford and that decision every day. I did think about it at Tavistock.”

Given the ultimate mulligan, Dunne rebuilt Sandler O’Neill and created a foundation to help pay college tuition for the firm’s children who lost their parents. Some of those kids now work at Sandler O’Neill. To honor his childhood friend, Quackenbush, Dunne marks all his golf balls with a Carolina blue “Q,” the color symbolizing Quackenbush’s alma mater: the University of North Carolina.

Since that fateful day, Dunne, who plays upward of 100 rounds per year, has tried to qualify for either the U.S. Mid-Amateur or the U.S. Senior Amateur an estimated 10 times. This year, he fathomed, might be his last attempt. At 61, he realized his window of opportunity was closing fast, although friends could see the improvement in his game.

“I’m impressed with how his game has developed,” said 2013 U.S. Mid-Amateur champion Michael McCoy, a fellow Seminole member who will also be making his U.S. Senior Amateur debut. “Obviously, he’s spent a great amount of time on it, so it’s nice to see him get rewarded for putting in all the hard work. Everyone is pulling for him.”

On the eve of the Tavistock qualifier, Dunne wasn’t feeling great about his game, and he contemplated withdrawing. Although McGuinness had organized a practice round on July 26, Dunne was coming off an extremely difficult day in the office. He hadn’t slept well, and was going to call his fellow University of Notre Dame graduate and cancel. McGuinness told him his daughter, Mary, a scratch player herself, was looking forward to playing with Jimmy, so he changed his mind. Dunne admitted the round was “terrible.” His putting was so bad that at the end of the round, he gave his putter to McGuinness’ 16-year-old son, Andrew.

Dunne, who chose the Tavistock site because it corresponded with a father-son tournament at Pine Valley, departed Tavistock feeling low and mentally exhausted. The Saturday round at Pine Valley with his 25-year-old son, Seamus, wasn’t great either, even with his trusted old mallet putter back in the bag. But both found something on the range that afternoon, and on Sunday, Seamus, a 14-handicap golfer, and Dunne shot 73 in the alternate-shot format.

Jimmy Dunne marks every golf ball with a Carolina blue Q to honor the late Chris Quackenbush, his best friend. (Jimmy Dunne/Golf Channel)

Dunne felt energized by Monday’s qualifier. Mike Sanger, a friend from Seminole, called him several times leading into the event with words of encouragement.

Then it happened. Dunne, who birdied two of the first three holes, posted a 73. The number stood for a while until Pine Valley caddie Edward Armagost posted a 72. Armagost, who qualified for the 1995 U.S. Open as well as two U.S. Amateurs in the early 1980s, affectionately told him, “I hope I didn’t cost you a spot.”

There was also a 71 by David Blichar. Dunne called his attorney, Ed Herlihy, who was out in Palo Alto, Calif., preparing for a business deal, that he might be a late arrival. Herlihy sternly instructed him to stay on property. Dunne prepared himself for a playoff that never happened. His 73 stood.

Forget the Shinnecock record or any other golf accomplishment. This was the coup de grace.

“I’ve had a feeling like it a couple other times, a feeling that I accomplished something,” said Dunne. “When the guy handed me the invitation and said, ‘Jimmy, congratulations, you are in,’ it was emotional to me. I had a great sense of satisfaction and I was at peace.”

To prepare for the U.S. Senior Amateur, Dunne made a reconnaissance trip to Eugene Country Club and befriended University of Oregon golfer Kevin Geniza. But before Geniza could serve as his caddie, Dunne had one stipulation: he had to wear Notre Dame gear. Geniza was originally reluctant. Dunne, however, rectified the situation immediately. He called Oregon coach Casey Martin and within minutes, a deal was struck. Dunne mailed Geniza some Fighting Irish shirts and hats.

With his first major hurdle cleared, Dunne’s next goal is to play well during stroke play, which begins Saturday. To prepare, he scheduled practice rounds with three longtime buddies: McCoy, Giles and 2008 Senior Amateur champion George “Buddy” Marucci Jr.

“He’ll be nervous, but he won’t be scared,” said Giles, the 2009 U.S. Senior Amateur champion who also won the 1972 U.S. Amateur and represented the USA on four Walker Cup Teams. “I would tell Jimmy to try and play your own game. Don’t take a lot of stupid chances. Try not to get in your own way … [and] don’t get carried away by the whole experience.”

Dunne’s biggest challenge might be patience. Even McCoy said Jimmy will need to slow down and “won’t have any trouble with the pace of play.”

Putting more pressure on himself generally works.

“I play very poorly when I just go out to play,” said Dunne. I generally play much better when I have something at stake or when I have the pencil on me.”

No matter what happens in Eugene, Dunne knows his personal Mount Everest has been summited. For a man who has played virtually every top course in the world, this is his crowning achievement.

When he travels out to Cypress Point, he often visits the home of 84-year-old retired businessman Sam Reeves, who lives not far from the eighth tee. Most guests marvel at Reeves’ remarkable collection of art. Dunne, however, has always focused on something else that was framed: his player bag tags from the 1972 U.S. Amateur and 1989 U.S. Senior Amateur.

“You can keep all of his art,” said Dunne, “but give me one of those [player badges]. That’s the one thing I would want.”

Reeves playfully ribbed Dunne after he qualified about needing to get a second badge to match his collection.

Dunne doesn’t know if he’ll get another, nor does it concern him.

The biggest item on his bucket list is officially crossed off.

David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at dshefter@usga.org

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