One morning, Irish International Maria Dunne parked her car and had to crawl to get to her front door. The pain flared in her lower back, shot down her legs and went straight through her heart.
“It was a little bit scary because I couldn’t really see an end to it,” she says of an injury that was both debilitating and soul destroying.
“There were days where I would feel really low. I’m a very active person. I keep my days filled up all the time even during the off season. To not be able to do much is heartbreaking. It’s even more heartbreaking when you used to be able to play at such a high standard.”
At nineteen, Dunne was packing her bags for college in the USA. There was the option of a soccer scholarship but she felt more like a golfer than a goalkeeper. Winning the Leinster Ladies at Co Louth the previous summer (2002) suggested her instincts were right - and throughout her time at Bethune-Cookman College in Florida, she was a standout player. It was only when she graduated that her career stalled.
The climb to the top is slow and gradual, but the descent can be quick like gravity pull. Dunne hit rock bottom at the Irish Stroke Play in 2008.
“I would never pull out of a tournament, especially not halfway through it. I shouldn’t have even played the first round. At lunch time I realised I can’t do this. I couldn’t keep playing tournaments like that.”
Reality hit her like a smack in the face. How can you keep dreaming when the nightmare is so real?
“I thought that was me done at the time,” she says. “I couldn’t compete at the level that I was used to. I was struggling to do the basic things. I would struggle to get out of bed.”
The problem was that the discs in her back kept popping in and out. She could hit balls and feel fine. Sit on the couch and she might not be able to move.
“I was doing what I thought was right at the time: physio, acupuncture, chiropractor. When it came down to it, there was nothing they could do for me,” she says.
Surgery was a possibility but the consultant was reluctant to operate because of her age. A pain-killing injection offered temporary relief. And the desire not to have another, so time in the gym became a priority. Stretching, strength and conditioning work were now as important as her swing mechanics.
“It took three to four years for the injury to come right,” she says. “It takes a lot of time and effort to get back to where you were."
By September, 2011, she could look up again. Her first goal was to make the Irish team for the following year’s Home Internationals at Cork. Ever since, she’s been on an incredible roll.
“The last two or three years have been brilliant,” she says. “I could have walked away from the game but my coach Roger Yates has been such an inspiration that I stuck at it."
Last season she had a wild time. She won the Titleist Scratch Cup Series in May thanks to victories at Woodbrook and Royal Portrush - the latter coming just five days before her wedding. Unbeaten for Leinster at the Interpros, she was Ireland's leading player at the Home Internationals.
"Last year was unbelievable," she admits. "They put me on the world championship team. I couldn’t quite believe it that I was picked. It took me a good few days to get over the shock that I was one of the top three players in the country."
At 30 years of age, she's enjoying a second coming. Only this time around there's much more to Maria Dunne than just focusing on her golf.
“I work full time so I really have to spread my time well between my relationship, my golf, gym work and golf practice. And then be a regular person and have a social life, all those things are important. You can’t just be solely focused on golf.”
Three days a week she leaves her Skerries home before dawn to be in the gym for 6am. Husband Bryan is a farmer so the intrusion to his sleep is minimal. By the time Maria arrives in work, Kinsealy-Grange, they’re both in full swing.
“I’m probably happier in myself," she says. "At this stage of my life golf is not my main priority and I don’t worry about the outcomes – I just play and I enjoy it and I have fun out there. I know amateur golf at my age isn’t forever but I’m enjoying getting the most out of it while I can.”
Although they were married last May, their honeymoon remains a future date. Thanks to Maria’s resurgence on the golf course that date is yet to be decided.