ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – With a bulky Titleist bag slung over his right shoulder, Alan Murray climbed down the elevated walkway behind the R&A clubhouse and tried to make sense of what had just happened.
There was a lot to absorb.
The head men’s coach at Alabama-Birmingham glanced inside the media tent and noticed that the best player he’s ever coached was on one of the seven projection screens, answering questions from the Open’s TV partners.
“Look at that,” Murray said, pointing at the screen. “Isn’t it incredible?”
On the eve of a final round overflowing with storylines, it is Paul Dunne, a 22-year-old Irish amateur, who can author one of the most improbable tales in the game’s long history.
Dunne, who is actually eight months older than world No. 2 Jordan Spieth, is tied for the lead here at the 144th Open Championship.
Spieth’s bid to match Ben Hogan as the only players to win the Masters, U.S. Open and British Open in the same season will garner almost all of the attention Monday, and deservedly so. But Dunne’s position through three rounds here shouldn’t be so quickly dismissed: He’s the first amateur since Jim Simons in 1971, and just the fourth player overall in the modern Grand Slam era, to hold at least a share of the lead at a major.
“His first-round score  was a tremendous achievement, then to back it up and shoot another 69 in the second round was really gutsy, and now to go out there and be leading the tournament, you can’t take that away from him ever,” said Padraig Harrington, the godfather of modern Irish golf. “That is as rare as it comes.”
And Dunne isn’t even the only amateur in the field with a chance to win Monday: Jordan Niebrugge, a senior at Oklahoma State, is in a tie for sixth, only three shots back.
“I’m not extremely surprised,” Spieth said. “I think in years to come, you’re going to see more and more of it.”
One of the biggest benefactors of Dustin Johnson’s third-round collapse, Dunne began the day four shots behind. Two hours later, he had grabbed the lead, after going out in 32.
It seemed like the more the Old Course buzzed, the better Dunne played. His best shot of the day came on the 17th, after a perfect tee shot over the Old Course Hotel sign. He pured a 4-iron around the Road Hole bunker to within 20 feet – a shot so bold that it made Louis Oosthuizen nervous for his own approach. He had picked a completely different line.
“That second shot was one of the best I’ve seen,” Oosthuizen said.
“That was outrageous,” Murray said.
Dunne made par on the last three holes to post 12-under 204, a score soon matched by Oosthuizen (67) and Jason Day (67).
And so now that he’s 18 holes from history, now that he’s on the brink of becoming the first amateur since insurance salesman Johnny Goodman in 1933 to win a major, it’s worth asking:
Can Dunne actually finish this thing off?
“I don’t see why not,” he said.
“He’s there on merit,” Murray said. “He’s hit all the great shots everyone has hit.”
Hey, Dunne even made a believer out of Oosthuizen, with whom he’ll be paired again in the finale.
“Absolutely,” he said. “The way he played today, definitely.”
The way he played during his final year at UAB? Maybe not.
Dunne had only six rounds in the 60s all season; this week alone he has three.
His best round during the college season was a 67; on Sunday of the Open, he shot 66, the lowest round ever by an amateur at St. Andrews.
He's ranked 80th in the world ... amateur rankings.
“He’s long and he’s strong,” said McDowell, who also attended UAB, “and he looks like he’s got a very complete game.”
Dunne was on Ireland’s men’s national team at a young age and has won at every level. His victory at the Irish Under-18 Boys Championship provided Murray, a fellow Irishman and then the UAB assistant, a glimpse into just how special of a talent he’d landed.
Last month, Dunne had a chance to win the NCAA Championship in his final college start, but he closed with 73 and finished fifth.
“He’s got a lot of intangibles,” Murray said. “Huge heart. Very talented. And hates to lose.”
A few weeks ago, Murray was recruiting in Finland at the European Boys Championship when he received the call that Dunne had qualified for the Open. The timing worked out that he could catch a flight from Finland to Scotland, and together, with only a few tours of the Old Course between them, they went about preparing for the year’s third major.
It has gone better than Dunne, Murray or anyone else could ever have imagined.
“It’s surreal I’m leading the Open,” Dunne said, “but I can easily believe that I shot the three scores that I shot. If we were playing an amateur event here, I wouldn’t be too surprised by the scores I shot. It’s just lucky that it happens to be in the biggest event in the world.”
Luck won’t be enough Monday, not when the forecast calls for heavy rain and a steady breeze, and not when major champions Oosthuizen, Spieth, Harrington, Justin Rose, Retief Goosen, Adam Scott and Zach Johnson are all within three shots.
So, yes, a massive stage awaits, but there is the possibility, however slight, that Dunne will channel Bobby Jones and become the first amateur in 85 years to win the Open.
“We’ll find out Monday is the easy answer,” Murray said, “but he’s handled it pretty well so far. That was a different level of intensity out there today. We saw how he handled that, didn’t we?”